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1999 the Role of Operation Sense in Transitions From

1999 the Role of Operation Sense in Transitions From

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DAVID SLAVIT
THE ROLE OF OPERATION SENSE IN TRANSITIONS FROMARITHMETIC TO ALGEBRAIC THOUGHT
ABSTRACT. As attention to the development of algebraic understandings at early gradelevels increases, theory and empirical support for these efforts are needed. This paperoutlines a theoretical perspective for studying student understandings of mathematicaloperations, with a particular focus on addition. The notion of operation sense is definedusing a perspective that incorporates the construction of mental objects. In the context of addition, it is argued that operation sense can be used to describe student development of additive concepts as well as transitions into algebraic ways of thinking. The report of a casestudy on the development of a young boy is then provided. The investigation attempts toinstantiatetheframework inregard tostudent development of anunderstanding of addition.Evidence was found that his attainment of aspects of operation sense supported transitionsinto algebraic ways of thinking, including a finite group setting and use of addition onunknown and arbitrary quantities. Limitations of the framework are discussed.
1. I
NTRODUCTION
The purpose of this paper is to present and investigate a theoretical per-spective on the development of understandings of mathematical opera-tions. The theoretical framework defines operation sense, with a particularfocus on addition. Areas of algebraic understanding that frame the invest-igation and emerge from an operation sense of addition are identified. Todemonstrate the viability of this analysis and to identify kernels of algeb-raic thought that may be present as numeric and arithmetic understandingsdevelop, I present data involving one child’s beginning addition strategiesduring his first and fourth grade year (ages 6 and 9), and interpret thesedata from this perspective.Evidence is accumulating to suggest that six- and seven-year old stu-dents can value alternate problem solving strategies and opportunities tocommunicate their thinking (Fuson et al., 1997; Franke and Carey, 1997).In addition, early elementary school students are capable of making sense
Portions of this study were presented at the 17th Annual Meeting of the North Amer-ican Chapter of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education,Columbus, Ohio, October, 1995
 Educational Studies in Mathematics
37:
251–274, 1999.© 1999
Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlans.
educ807.tex; 16/06/1999; 14:11; p.1pips: 207632; WTB: EDUC807 GSB web2c: 7020031 (educkap:humnfam) v.1.15
 
252
DAVID SLAVIT
of advanced notions of arithmetic that transcend into algebraic realms(Kaput, in press). Kaput (1995), in a call for an earlier introduction of algebra in current curricula, describes one important aspect of algebraicthought:
Acts of generalization and abstraction give rise to formalisms that support syntactic com-putations that, in turn, can be examined for structures of their own, usually based intheir concrete origins ... . These structures seem to have three purposes, (1) to enrichunderstandings of the systems they are abstracted from, (2) to provide intrinsically usefulstructures for computations freed of the particulars that they were once tied to, and (3) toprovide the base for yet higher levels of abstraction and formalization (p. 77).
Various aspects of algebraic understanding athigher grade levels have beenpreviously identified, including action-oriented, process-oriented, and ob- ject-oriented understandings (Briedenbach etal., 1992; Confrey and Smith,1995; Thompson, 1994; Slavit, 1997a). Although algebra at early gradelevels is also multi-dimensional (Kaput, 1995), for the purposes of thispaper, early algebraic competence willbe primarily restricted tothe cognit-ive processes and actions associated with abstracting computation to morestructural realms, commonly referred to as generalized arithmetic. Theseunderstandings are encapsulated in the above discussion by Kaput and canbe manifested by the manipulation of algebraic symbols and equations.Descriptions of the nature of this abstraction and structure are providedbelow.
 Mental objects
Numerous theories have been offered on the nature of mental objects inmathematics (Davis, 1984; Vergnaud, 1988; Cobb et al., 1992; Fuson etal., 1997). Thetransitioning from action- to object-oriented understandingspresent in the theory of reification can be related to an investigation of the manner in which acts of computation are abstracted to more structuralrealms. Sfard and Linchevski (1994) describe reification:
The ability to perceive mathematics in this dual way (as an action and as an object) makesthe universe of abstract ideas into the image of the material world: like in real life, theactions performed here have their ‘raw materials’ and their products in the form of entitiesthat are treated as genuine, permanent objects. Unlike in real life, however, a closer look at these entities will reveal that they cannot be separated from the processes themselves asself-sustained beings. Such abstract objects like
√ 
1,
2, or the function 3
(x
+
5
)
+
1 aretheresultsof adifferent wayof looking ontheprocedures of extractingthesquareroot from
1, of subtracting 2, and of mapping the real numbers onto themselves through a lineartransformation, respectively. Thus, mathematical objects are an outcome of reification – of our mind’s eye’s ability to envision the result of processes as permanent entities in theirown right (pp. 193–194).
educ807.tex; 16/06/1999; 14:11; p.2
 
OPERATION SENSE
253Children often perform additive tasks using various counting methods, buteventually are able to refine this technique towards more efficient methods(Fuson, 1992a). The task of adding 5
+
3 could initially be performed bycounting out a set of 5, and then a set of 3, joining these sets, and countingthe result. Counting up allows the child to start from 5. This action signifiesthat the reification stage is beginning since the number 5 no longer needsto be verified through the process of counting. Eventually, children canunderstand that 5
+
3
=
8 without any immediate reference to modellingactions.This development provides an example of the building of a chain inwhat could be termed the ‘reification cycle’. Once a process is reified tothe degree that it can itself be thought of as a mathematical object, thena second operation can be used on this newly-conceived object, whichcan later become reified itself. The reification cycle can be a nice toolin analyzing the long-term development of mathematical understanding.However, caution must be exercised in that reification is not a dichotomousvariable (Schoenfeld et al., 1993; Sfard and Linchevski, 1994) and learningfor understanding is not a totally-ordered process (Kieren and Pirie, 1991;Hiebert et al., 1996). Mathematical objects in this sense must be describedin light of the motivations for use and meaning-making activities of thestudent involved (Fuson et al., 1997; Slavit, 1997b). In other words, reific-ation can only occur as a consequence of student knowledge construction,and the results of reification only ‘exist’ in the context of the student’sexisting conceptual structure.
Operation sense
The notion of mental objects will be used to help explicate the followingdiscussion of operation sense. According to Piaget (1964), an operation isthe ‘essence of knowledge’ that is central in developing structural under-standings. This perspective will be used in arguing for the importance of operation sense in curricula and in discussing what operation sense entails.Because I am interested in student understanding, and not just problemsolving behaviors, as well as how operation sense might be used to discussalgebraic understanding, I have attempted to develop a theoretical basisthat would be: 1) useful in discussing mathematical operations in general;2) useful in exploring student understandings of addition; and 3) useful inunderstanding how children’s early competencies in arithmetic can be seenas roots of later algebraic forms of thought. I am defining operation sensein an effort to satisfy these requirements.A base definition of operation sense could involve the ability to use theoperation on at least one set of mathematical objects (such as the ability
educ807.tex; 16/06/1999; 14:11; p.3

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