Tuesday, December 23, 2008

M3A1 - Mathematical expressions (1)

M3A1. Students will use mathematical expressions to represent relationships between quantities and interpret given expressions.

One of the things that some people are surprised (or even get upset) about is the fact that algebra is included as a content strand for elementary school students (grades 3-5). Unfortunately, there are some even well-educated people who mistakenly think that this means we will be teaching algebra as they experienced in high schools in elementary schools. Clearly, that's absurd. What is being expected, however, is that children begin developing some foundational ideas about algebra and algebraic reasoning. Of course, that raises the question, "What is algebra in elementary school?"

Even though the GPS is heavily influenced by the 1989 Japanese Course of Study, interestingly enough, there is no "algebra" strand in the Japanese standards. Instead, they have a strand titled, Quantitative Relations, in which student learn much of what we would typically include in Algebra and also Statistics (Data Analysis). In the elaboration document the Ministry of Education publishes, they state that two important "themes" in Quantitative Relations are learning about mathematical expressions and studying functional relationships. The current standard (M3A1) is clearly about mathematical expressions. In fact, this standard really needs to be considered as soon as we start teaching addition operation in Grade 1. Students should learn that 5+3=8 is a representation of a situation like where Johnny had 5 apples and his mom gave him 3 more to make the total number of apples to be 8. Mathematical expressions aren't about computation problems to be completed. They represent situations/physical phenomena/one's thinking, concisely and precisely.

Because they are representations of situations etc., it is also perfectly possible to write something like 8=3+5 to represent decomposition of 8 into 3 and 5, for example. Teachers should include this type of expressions from early on to help students understand that "=" means the two quantities on both sides are equal in magnitude. It does not mean "do something" to get the answer to be written on the right side. By understanding mathematical expressions as representations of situations etc., students can think about writing missing number situations using some place holders like a little box, for example 3+[ ]=8.

When you consider mathematical expressions as representations, and also tools for communications, there are some implications. One such implication is how you write multiplication expressions - I wrote about this in June, 2007 (M2N3a). Another implication is the last part of this standard, "interpret given expressions." If mathematical expressions are the language of mathematics, as I believe they are, then we have to not only worry about "writing" but also "reading." Ability to read/interpret given expressions must become an explicit focus of mathematics instruction, starting in Grade 1. Possible instructional activities may include having students tell stories (or write word problems, when students are old enough) that will match the given expressions and interpreting other students' thinking processes when they present their solutions using mathematical expressions.

Moreover, just as we sometimes "read in between the lines," mathematical expressions can be interpreted in different ways. For example, if we are given 5+3=8, we can simply interpret this statement to mean, "If you add 3 to 5, you get 8." However, we can interpret this statement even further. For example, 5 must be 3 less than 8 since you need to add 3 to 5 to get 8. This means that the difference between 8 and 5 is 3, or 8-5=3. Now, the original addition sentence can also be interpreted as "if you add 5 to 3 you get 8," or 3+5=8. Then, using the similar argument, we can also say that 3 is 5 less than 8, or the difference between 8 and 3 is 5, i.e., 8-3=5. In many US textbooks, students learn about "fact families." I have never heard of such a phrase while growing up in Japan. Instead of simply memorizing how numbers can be shifted around and the operation signs manipulated, it would be much better if our students can "read" math sentences like "5+3=8" and interpret all the relationships that are expressed by so-called fact families, wouldn't it?

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Elaboration of Georgia Performance Standards by Tad Watanabe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.