What Is Algebra? What Is Algebraic Reasoning?

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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