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Published by davisfc50

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Published by: davisfc50 on Oct 01, 2012
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REVEALING THE FACES OF ABSTRACTIONWe adapted this paper from a presentation at the Research Conference inCollegiate Mathematics Education (RCCME), held at Central MichiganUniversity in September, 1996. The presentation reflected our project’sdiscussions over several months. We began with the goal of beginning todefine abstraction. The result was not a definition, but a dialogue (con-densedhere from a cast of ten to two characters) about the complexity andthevariousfacesofabstraction.Participantsinthediscussionsincluded:AlCuoco, Ed Dubinsky, Pamela Frorer, E. Paul Goldenberg, Wayne Harvey,Orit Hazzan, Uri Leron, Michelle Manes, Tammy Jo Ruter, and DespinaStylianou.We chose a new technique for presentation: a dialogue. We experi-mented with it because we wanted to present our own thinking mixed inwith others’ thoughts and written statements. Retaining the conversationalformat from which the ideas first emerged preserved some of the differingperspectives.Our intention here is not to survey all literature and opinions expressedabout abstraction, nor is the conversation only about abstraction in mathe-maticseducation.Agoodsourcefor avarietyof discussionsaboutabstrac-tionisNossandHoyles(1996).Thereare,however,afewplaceswherewefelt aspecificreferencewasneededandthusthereferenceis madeexplicit.THE SETTINGAconversationbetweentwomathematicsinstructorsataconference.Bothinstructors graduated from the same university. Allie is working withcolleagues on a paper about abstraction to be published in the
.Bert is now working in computer science.Bert: WellI’mgladwehavesometimetotalkbeforethenextconferencesession.I’ve been wanting to tell you that I read the initial draft of your paper on abstraction and enjoyed it.Allie: You did? Great. Speaking of abstraction, what do you think of thetalkscheduledforthenextsessionthis morning?Idon’tremember
 International Journal of Computers for Mathematical Learning
217–228, 1997.c
Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
who the presenters are
but, I wonder what they mean by thetitle: “Revealing the Faces of Abstraction”?Bert: Iheardtheyplantopresentdifferentperspectivesonabstractionasit applies to mathematics, and to learning mathematics. What I’mstill wonderingis exactlywhatis meantbytheword“abstraction.”Allie: Ithink alot ofus arewonderinghowtoreachasharedunderstand-ing of the term, or at least a definition we can use in common –there seem to be a number of different interpretations out there.My paper is an attempt to provide some common ground. So tellme: what comes to mind when you think of abstraction?Bert: Well let’s see, I can at least locate abstractions in mathematics.And I’ve solved a lot of problems I would consider very abstract.I’vebeenrelativelysuccessfulwithabstraction;yetsometimesIdoquestion whether I’ve always known what was going on, or whatI thought I was doing in solving a particularly abstract problem.But for a lot of people, and certainly for our students, abstractionin a mathematicalsensemay very well be just that, an abstraction!Allie: That’s true
And because I’ve been involved in writing thatpaper on abstraction, I’ve had quite a few discussions with mystudents about just what is abstract, or what is an abstraction inmathematics. In the process, my students have come up with thislistofphrasesandwordstheyassociatedwiththetermasit appliesto mathematics:
hidden, complex, requiring deep thought, not concrete, apart from actual sub-stance or experience, not easily understood, a mental construction, a theoreticalconsideration
But I agree with you Bert: Most people, or most of my studentsanyway, view all of mathematics beyond arithmetic and basicalgebra as an abstraction, a mental construction.Bert: Your list is helpful, and thought provoking
I wonder if, withregard to mathematics, “abstraction” means a way of thinking, orperhaps a tool to classify mental constructs or ways of thinking.Allie: Absolutely. I think an abstraction can be a way of thinking, or aprocess;I’devenarguethatanabstractioncanbeanobjectaswell.Actually – have you read any of the chapters in
Advanced Math-ematical Thinking
, edited by Tall (1991)? – I’d go further to saythat abstractions can be actions, processes, objects, and schemas;although you might call some of the objects the byproducts of the process of abstraction! But nonetheless they become things,objects that we talk about and work with, such as:
n, a universal
219coordinatizingdomain;or polynomials,whichprovide a universalcalculation domain for all kinds of extensions of 
.Bert: Yes, I have looked at that book – several chapters were refer-enced in a critique by Confrey and Costa (1996) published in the
 International Journal of Computers for Mathematical Learning
.ConfreyandCosta’s piecemadesomeinterestingclaims abouttheideas of a few of the authors in Tall’s book and other theorists,all of whom they have grouped together as “reification theorists.”One of the claims was that these theorists see “mathematics asstrictly hierarchically ordered,” and further that they believe “thehistory of mathematics is a metaphor for straightforward, purify-ing progress.”I haven’t readall of theliterature on the subject,butthat certainly doesn’t describe my impression of the perspectivesin Tall’s book.Allie: Right, I saw that article, and Tall’s response (1997) in the nextissue of the journal where he tries to clarify some of his intentionsand theory. Confrey and Costa claim a clear contrast between theapproach they advocate, and the approach they say the reificationtheorists take. But Tall points out that only two of the chaptersproduced by the group referred to are considered “reificationist;”and he clarifies some of the differences between at least how heand Dubinsky (1988, 1991) see various forms of mathematicalobjects. Given the range of views among the theorists involved, itseemsto me that Tallis on to somethingwhenhe sayshehas morein common with Confrey and Costa than not.Besides, selecting the language of tools, as Confrey and Costasuggest, doesn’t necessarily obviate the language of objects, atleast at the elementary level, which is what Confrey and Costaseem most concerned with in the article. For example, I don’tbelieve reification theorists would agree with their statement that,accordingtoreificationtheory,fractionsmustbeintroducedearlierthan ratio and proportion, which “introduce harder symbolic andconceptual demands.” (p. 162) To the contrary, children of thirdgrade may more readily understand that one-half of a pizza isthe same as three-sixths or six-twelfths of a pizza, than that one-half plus one-third is five-sixths. What becomes reified here is notthe addition or multiplication involved in calculating an answer,but the fractions themselves. In order to add fractions of unlikedenominators such as one-half plus one-third, children must think of fractions as objects (as the numbers on a number line), andmove beyond their thinking of fractions as “some
part of 
some-thing,” or as the action or process of taking one-half or one-third

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