Posts Tagged ‘Education’

The title here implies I’m about to write something about pendulums, however, it’s more to explain why there has been such an absence of posts from recent MaST work.

The main reason is that I have just moved house, and other factors are an increased work load lately as well as a distinct lack of time to work with children in school on MaST type things.

So, things are just about settled down now, so I feel able to post here a little more. I also have things to write about based on my work in school and from the most recent study block.

But, thinking about pendulums – and chaos theory (I have been reading a lot lately about oscillations and magnitudes of vibrations creating wonderful changes as discussed by David Acheson) – here is a fabulous video.


Key points:

  • This article is full of ideas to support my action research with children when the time comes. I intend to use some of the ideas within to help structure my input and form the base and review tasks.
  • This article also grabs me as it contains citations of other authors I have read so far – not necessarily the same articles/sources as the Kaput writing I have read is a later date than this article, however the 2008 Kaput source seems to be a development of the 2001 piece used here. These connections confirm to me that my thinking and research is along the right lines and hasn’t been as unfocussed as I first feared.
  • “Difficulties occur with adolescent students stem from a lack of early experiences in the elementary school” – relates to functional thinking and how students find it difficult to spot generalisations easily. They lack apporpriate language to describe what’s happening, generally focus on a single data set rather than comparing information and have “an inabilty to visualise spatially or complete patterns.” (Warren, 2000). The researchers found that children had limited experience with visual growth patterns and had rarely used arithmetic for anything other than finding answers.
  • It continues to state that recording data in a table inhibited the children’s thinking, encouraging “single variational thinking, finding relationships along the sequence of numbers instead of find the relationship between the pairs.” … “The patterns chosen here were those  where links between the pattern and its position were visually explicit…to focus in particular on the relationship between the position number and the pattern.” The article gives examples of the patterns used (shown below) and describes the aims of the questions in detail.

Main Reference:

  • Warren, E., Cooper, T. (2007) ‘Generalising the pattern rule for visual growth patterns: Actions that support 8 year olds’ thinking’ Educational Studies in Mathematics, Vol. 67, No. 2, pp 171-185


  • Kaput, J., Blanton, M. (2001) ‘Algebrafying the elementary mathematics experience’ in Chick, H., Stacey, K., Vincent, J. and Vincent, J. (eds.) The future of the teaching and learning of algebra. Proceedings of the 12th ICMI study conference. Melbourne: ICMI, Vol. 1, pp. 57-94
  • Warren, E. (2000) ‘Visualisation and the development of early understanding in algebra’ in Nakahara, T. Koyama, M. (eds.) Proceedings of the 24th conference of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education. Hiroshima. Vol. 4, pp.273-280
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Key points:

  • Algebra is a third of the Malaysian Secondary Mathematics curriculum.
  • The article lists a large range of sources relating to misconceptions in the understanding of algebra. It states that, because algebra is an extension of previously acquired mathematical learning, it is linked to the use of symbolic representations and that “Warren (2003) felt that understandings of basic arithmetic operations could assist sucessful transition from arithmetic to algebra.”
  • “Students use the equals sign in both contexts: arithmetic and algebra. The concept of the equals sign in the framework of arithmetic is that of a ‘do something’ signal (Bodin & Capponi, 1996). Many students tried to add “= 0″ to algebraic expressions when they were asked to simplify (Kieran, 1997).”
  • The article cites Booth, 1981, as a refernce for children not understanding the idea of a letter as a variable, and they rather see each letter as representing a digit.
  • The article looks in detail at a range of errors (12 types) made by students. The examples given are from the secondary curriculum and so may not apply to any errors made by children in a primary school – but a worthwhile source to help identify the sorts of errors that could be made.

Main Reference:

  • Lim, K. (2009) ‘An Error Analysis of Form 2 (Grade 7) Students in Simplifying Algebraic Expressions: A Descriptive Study’ Electronic Journal of Research in Education Psychology, Vol. 8, No. 1, pp 139-162

Key points:

  • That  children struggle to make the move from being in a situation where “not knowing answers (to arithmetic calculations) is treated negatively, and then suddenly introduced to algebra in which not knowing is treated positively as an opportunity to use symbols, as a way of working with not knowing.”
  • “Whenever a learner solves a problem, there is available the question ‘What is the method that was used?’, which in intimately tied up with the question ‘What can be changed about the problem and still the same technique or method will work?’ or ‘What is the class of problems which can be solved similarly?’ S. Brown and M. Walter (1981) suggest asking ‘What if … something changed?’ or ‘What if not…?’ Watson and Mason advocate explicitly asking learners to consider what dimensions of possible variation and corresponding ranges of permissible change they are aware of (Mason & Johnston-Wilder, 2004; Watson & Mason, 2004) as stimulus to becoming aware of, and even expressing features of, the general class of problem of which the ones considered are representative.”
  • Awareness of and Expressing Generality: “Picture-pattern sequences (Mason, 1988b; Mason, Graham, Pimm & Gowat, 1983; South Notts, n.d.) provide just one context for generalizing.” Learners are shown a sequence of pictures, and then specify a method describing how the pattern is growing through each term in the sequence, extrapolating these ideas to fit further terms in the sequence
  • “Getting learners to make use of their powers is not simply an approach to algebra or even approach to mathematics. It is mathematics.”

Main Reference:

  • Mason, J. (2008) ‘Making Use Of Children’s Powers To Produce Algebraic Thinking’ in Kaput, J., Carraher, D. and Blanton, M. (eds.) Algebra In The Early Grades. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 57-94


  • Brown, S. and Walter, M. (1982) The art of problem posing. Philadelphia: Franklin Institute Press.
  • Mason, J. (1988b) Expressing generality [project update]. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
  • Mason, J. and Johnston-Wilder, S. (2004). Designing and using mathematical tasks. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
  • Mason, J., Graham, A., Pimm, D. and Gowar, N. (1985). Routes to, roots of algebra. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
  • South Notts Project. (n.d.) Material for secondary mathematics. Nottingham: Shell Centre, University Of Nottingham.
  • Watson, A. and Mason, J. (2004) Mathematics as a constructive activity: The role of learner-generated examples. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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Key points:

  • “Recent research on the status of student knowledge based in the traditional arithmetic-then-algebra regime has pointed to specific obstacles to algebra learning that computational arithmetic creates for the learning of algebra. For example, limited approaches to equality and the “=” sign in arithmetic as separator of procedure from result (Kieran, 1992) and now known to interfere with later learning in algebra (Fujii, 2003; MacGregor & Stacey, 1997).”
  • The majority of the chapter discusses the uses of algebra and tries to define it – “algebra needs to be described both through a snapshot of its structure and function in mathematics today and in mathematically mature individuals, and through a dynamic picture of its evolution historically and developmentally.” “Most attempts to describe algebra historically…tend to be oriented toward progress in solving equations, where the origin of the equations might be the problem situations or simply assertions about numbers or measurement quantities, often surprisingly similar across millennia (e.g., Katz, 1995).”
  • The article continues to describe two core aspects of algebra – generalisation and “syntactically guided action on symbols within organized systems of symbols” (which I take to mean reasoning). When these two core  aspects are introduced to children is another area of discussion – with practitioners giving reasonable arguments for each aspect to be given favour.
  • Movement from arithmetic to algebra depend on the understanding of the “=” sign. Children must realise that sign shows equivalence: 18 plus 3 is the same as 3 plus 18 just as a plus b is the same as b plus a.

Main Reference:

  • Kaput, J. (2008) ‘What Is Algebra? What Is Algebraic Reasoning?’ in Kaput, J., Carraher, D. and Blanton, M. (eds.) Algebra In The Early Grades. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 5-18


  • Fujii, T., (2003) ‘Probing students’ understanding of variables through cognitive conflict problems: Is he concept of a variable so difficult for students to understand?’ in Pateman, N., Dougherty, B. and Zilliox, J. (eds.) Proceedings of the 27th Conference of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education, Vol. 1, pp. 49-66. Honolulu: University of Hawaii.
  • Katz, V. (1995) ‘The development of algebra and algebra education’ in Lacampagne, C., Blair, W. and Kaput, J. (eds) The algebra initiative colloquium, Vol. 1, pp. 15-32. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.
  • Kieran, C. (1992) ‘The Learning and teaching of school algebra’ in Grouws, D. (ed) Handbook of research on mathematics teaching and learning, pp. 390-419. New York: Macmillan.
  • MacGregor, M., and Stacey, K. (1997) ‘Students’ understanding of algebraic notation: 11-15′ Educational Studies in Mathematics, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 1-19.

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“This paper describes a lesson taught to Judy’s Y2 class in a rural Hertfordshire primary school. It shows how meaningful mathematics can be made accessible to young children and, importantly, how fundamental issues of variant and invariant properties  might be developed. An important component of this understanding is the position to term relationship – the relationship (or rule) between the position, n, of a number in a sequence and the number itself. In short, it is our view that young children, when given appropriate opportunities, can operate at levels substantially higher than the curriculum would indicate was likely.”

The teacher in this case made an animal, a dog, using linking cubes. The general shape was  expanded upon to make two larger animals in a ‘family’ of three dogs.

“We discussed the dogs we had made. My questions and prompts were intended to alert them to an awareness of those elements of the dogs that remained constant (invariant) and those that changed. In respect of those elements that changed the intention was to encourage their understanding as to the systematic, and therefore predictable, nature of that change.”

The key to the children’s understanding seems to be labelling each of the parts of the dog, head, legs, shoulders, body and bottom. Once they could apply these labels to each of the three dogs, they could see how the animal was made up. They then used this knowledge to predict the make up of the fourth dog.

After this, they applied their knowledge to their own animals – working out the 4th and 10th members of the family. Some did this in tables, some did this in sentences, but they all could do it regardless of their mathematical abilities. Some were making generalised statements linking the term in the sequence to the body parts. All good stuff and remarkable when you consider that these children are in Year 2…


  • Andrews, P., Sayers, J. (2003) ‘Algebraic Infants’ Mathematics Teaching, Vol. 182, pp. 18-22

The article gives a history of the mathematics landscape in the UK since 1837. Algebra has been part of this throughout.

We see algebra as a key tool to help solve problems now, but historically “problem solving was seen as a specialized skill, only for mathematicians in opening up new fields.”

Key points:

  • “A problem solver needs a rich, connected understanding of mathematics and the abilty to see patterns of similarity and association, as well as the skills to carry out the planned attack, and to check that the results make sense in the context of the problem.”
  • “A Royal Commision, reporting on the state of mathematics teaching in nine leading Public (i.e., private) Schools in 1837, noted that the typical two weekly hours of mathematics consisted of Arithmetic, a little manipulative Algebra, and “Euclid“, learned by rote.”


  • Burkhardt, H., Bell, A. (2007) ‘Problem solving in the United Kingdom’ ZDM, Vol. 39, no. 5, pp. 395-403

The majority of the next few posts are going to be based on my findings from a variety of reading.

Part of the MaST course is to produce a couple of assignments, based on personal research, designed to meet the aims and objectives of the programme, reflecting school based activities, readings, synthesis of theory and practice, analysis of teaching and learning in mathematics and personal and collegiate professional development.

Assignment 1:

Select an area of mathematics or an issue in mathematics teaching that they have identified as an area for development and write a report of a mathematical enquiry (equivalent to 4500 words) that you have undertaken that critically explores content, concepts and relationships in the chosen area.

My chosen area is based around algebra and how children use it to solve problems.

This reading discusses how an average student can benefit from a structured and ordered approach to the teaching of fractions. It could probably be applied to any mathematics topic.

The approach taken was one of understanding the needs of the child first and having an in depth idea of where her weaknesses were. There was a strong focus on the language of fractions – this relates to some of the findings I wrote about yesterday. Fractions are a relative part of maths and their outcome depends entirely on whatever the whole is.

However, we initially observed Audrey having problems in comparing the equivalent fractions 1/3 and 2/6. We therefore used the fraction-lift to clarify equivalent fractions, by making them fractions living at the same floor of the fraction-building and by introducing the metaphor of “roommates” for fractions at the same position on the number line. We now observed how Audrey used the strategy of doubling both the numerator and the denominator to generate equivalent fractions, for example by replacing 2/3 by 4/6 to compare the latter fraction with 5/6.

This gives Audrey a hook to hang her ideas on, something concrete that she can build her learning on. I’m convinced that children need to have the basics of any topic before moving on. I also think that the current approach we have to teaching in this country, based on the current Mathematics Framework, is far too fleeting and jumpy. As practitioners, I feel we need to consider the needs of our children – group parts of topics together so that they have more time to practise and consolidate their learning.

Link (the full article): Ronald Keijzer and Jan Terwel: Audrey’s Acquisition Of Fractions: A Case Study Into The Learning Of Formal Mathematics.

Below are the general responses to the questions posed – I recap the questions and the views are generalised notes from talking to a range of teachers from nursery, through Key Stage 1 and 2. I provide the detailed breakdown of two colleagues from Years 3 and 4.

Throughout these you can see that fractions is a huge, varied and tricky concept to think about, teach and learn. I have found that, throughout my teaching career, children have always found fractions hard, although there are a core of children who grasp it quickly, these are the exception rather than the rule.

It is clear that a hands-on, physical approach is needed at the beginning of fractions work – indeed practical maths was a key talking point of all the teachers throughout the Primary phase. But also, I feel that language is a huge barrier to children’s learning. The language of fractions is often misused throughout life and if they don’t have a solid understanding in the first place, their will only serve to cloud the issue further. Another difficult aspect is the link with division – children who don’t know their multiplication and division facts can’t begin to develop their ideas of fractions

So, how can we bring all these parts together to make up one cohesive whole?!

I think it’s a case of reviewing the way it is taught throughout the Primary Phase. Children have to encounter teachers who are confident in approaching fractions and the subject needs to be taught consistently, removing areas of conflict and making sure that each part of their learning isn’t conflicting with another area. If it is to be taught alone, then it needs to be done until that child grasps that particular stage of learning. My belief however, is that is must feature in each part of mathematics – there can always be a question relating to fractions in whatever is taught. This may help to break some of the barriers to learning that exist – I currently feel that children are very negative towards them.

One key to learning is children’s difficulty with fraction language. Maybe teachers are trying to make too many jumps at the same time, moving too quickly. Maybe this is down to pressures from the curriculum. It is often better to avoid comparisons. For instance, when focussing on halves, it would be better to focus on and describe objects or models that are either halves or not halves, rather than giving objects other labels (much in the same way that children find it easier to learn that bricks are heavy and feathers are not heavy rather than comparing them as heavy and light. Floating and sinking is another example, it is easier to get children to understand things that float and things that don’t float BEFORE investigating things that sink – it’s too confusing).

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