## Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Kindergarten: Operations and Algebraic Thinking (1)

In the domain of Operations and Algebraic Thinking in Kindergarten, there is only one cluster - "Understand addition as putting together and adding to, and understand subtraction as taking apart and taking from." This cluster statement makes it quite clear what meaning Kindergarteners are to give to the arithmetic operations of addition and subtraction. The current GPS (MKN2a) states, "Use counting strategies to find out how many items are in two sets when they are combined, separated, or compared." Table 1 of the CCSS explain what is meant by "putting together," "adding to," "taking apart," and "taking from." In my previous post on MKN2a (link), I discussed how the GPS's classification was based on the framework developed by the Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI). The categories used by the CCSS are comparable to the CGI categories as well, but labeled differently. Thus, "adding to" is equivalent to "combine," "taking from" is equivalent to "separate." "Putting together" and "taken apart" are the "part-part-whole" category of the CGI - with the "putting together," the whole is unknown while in "taken apart," a part is unknown.

At this point, one major difference between the CCSS and the current GPS should be obvious. In the CCSS there is no comparison meaning of subtraction is addressed in Kindergarten. Instead, the CCSS includes the part-unknown case of the part-part-whole structure for subtraction. How significant is this difference? This might turn out to be a pretty significant difference. One of the findings from the CGI research is that children approach these word problems using different strategies - usually counting and/or direct modeling of the problem situations as the first step. Gradually, children will move toward the strategies that involve more advanced counting or the use of previously learned facts.

An example of "taken apart" problem included in the Appendix is this:
Five apples are on the table. Three are red and the rest are green. How many apples are green?From an adult's perspective, we might think it is simple to use counting or direct modeling for this problem. You just need to count on from 3 till you reach 5, or start counting from 5 down to 3. However, I discussed in the previous post that counting-on requires a major cognitive development. Moreover, the CGI research seems to show that "counting down to" is a more advanced counting strategy (than simply counting back 3 times). In order to model the situation, children must be able to anticipate the result - you can't start with 5 because it is made up of the known quantity and the unknown quantity. Thus, that is a more advanced thinking as well.

Comparison problems, on the other hand, are easier to model. Children can model both quantities, and they can make one-to-one correspondence between the two groups. The ones without matches are the difference. So, from a developmental perspective, comparison situations seem to be more "primitive" type. When mathematics educators discuss subtraction, we often talk about three different ways we can think of subtraction: subtraction as a take away, subtraction as comparison, and subtraction as missing addend. The "taken apart" (or part-part-whole with part unknown) seems to relate more to the last type, and we can see, from other standards, the CCSS emphasizes that way of thinking subtraction. Perhaps a careful and thoughtful teaching with that focus might help students make the necessary cognitive advances. But, I think it is critical teachers are aware of the non-trivial challenges students are expected to overcome.