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Corner Children’s

Understanding of

Equality: A Foundation

for Algebra

M

any states and school districts, as esting to explore what children under-

well as Principles and Standards for stand about equality and the equals sign.

School Mathematics: Discussion At the start of this project, many teach-

Draft (NCTM 1998), recommend that al- ers asked their students to solve the fol-

gebra be taught in the early childhood lowing problem:

years. Although young children often

understand much more than traditionally 8+4=c+5

thought, adults can have difficulty concep-

tualizing what would constitute appropri- At first, this problem looked trivial to

ate algebra for the early childhood years. many teachers. One sixth-grade teacher,

Fifteen teachers and three university re- for example, said, “Sure, I will help you

searchers are currently involved in a out and give this problem to my students,

project to define what alge- but I have no idea why this will be of in-

bra instruction can and terest to you.” This teacher found that

should be for young chil- all twenty-four of her students thought

Karen P. Falkner, that 12 was the answer that should go in

dren. In this article, we dis-

Linda Levi, and cuss the concept of equality, the box. She found this result so interest-

Thomas P. Carpenter which is a crucial idea for ing that before we had a chance to check

developing algebraic reason- back with her, she had the other sixth-

ing in young children. grade teachers at her school give this prob-

lem to their students. As shown in table

1, all 145 sixth-grade students given this

Misconceptions about the problem thought that either 12 or 17

Equals Sign should go in the box.

Even though teachers frequently use the Why did so many children have

equals sign with their students, it is inter- trouble with this problem? Clearly, chil-

dren have a limited understanding of

Karen Falkner, kfalkner@madison.k12.wi.us, is a primary-grade equality and the equals sign if they think

teacher at Lapham Elementary School, Madison, WI 53703. She is that 12 or 17 is the answer that goes in

currently participating in a study of young children’s algebraic the box. Many young children do, how-

thinking. Linda Levi, llevi@facstaff.wisc.edu, and Thomas Carpenter, ever, understand how to model a situa-

tpcarpen@facstaff.wisc.edu, are affiliated with the Wisconsin Center tion that involves making things equal.

for Educational Research, Madison, WI 53706. They both study the For example, Mary Jo Yttri, a kindergar-

development of young children’s algebraic thinking. ten teacher, gave her students the prob-

lem 4 + 5 = c + 6. All the children

Edited by Kate Kline, kate.kline@wmich.edu, Department of Math-

thought that 9 should go in the box. Yttri

ematics, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI 49008. This

then modeled this situation with the chil-

dren. Together, they made a stack of four

column addresses the early childhood teacher’s need to support young

cubes, then a stack of five cubes. In an-

children’s emerging mathematics understandings and skills in a other space, they made stacks of nine and

context that conforms with current knowledge about the ways that six cubes. Yttri asked the children if each

young children — pre-K-K — learn mathematics. Readers are arrangement had the same number of

encouraged to send manuscripts for this section to the editor.

232 TEACHING CHILDREN MATHEMATICS

] number after the equals sign is the answer to the calculation.10 . took place after students had worked on ceptions about equality can become more the problem. when she first appropriate understanding of equality re. such as 4 + 6 = 10 or 67 . same amount on each side of the equals TABLE 1 Percent of children offering various solutions to 8 + 4 = +5 Answers Given Number of Grade 7 12 17 12 and 17 Other Children 1 0 79 7 0 14 42 1 and 2 6 54 20 0 20 84 2 6 55 10 14 15 174 3 10 60 20 5 5 208 4 7 9 44 30 11 57 5 7 48 45 0 0 42 6 0 84 14 2 0 145 DECEMBER 1999 233 . Falkner.12. The children knew that the group. 234. The discussion lish appropriate notions of equality. Elementary school chil. Most equals sign. [Many children nod their calculation that precedes it and that the heads in agreement. Then why did you put 12 in and Anenz-Ludlow and Walgamuth (1998) the box? have documented. It is 7. Otherwise.10. firmly entrenched. mainder of this article shows how the chil- ence with the equals sign and would not dren in this class have progressed in their yet have formed the misconceptions about understanding of equality over the past equality demonstrated by older children. This in. the children are correct to think of groupings have the same number of cubes. however. (See “About the Math- ematics” on p. Falkner.” Falkner. Stu- are not eliminated with one or two ex. A concerted effort over an ex. Karen Falkner is currently teaching a first– This incident surprised Yttri and the and second–grade class. Why? Not much variety is evident in how Adam. Erlwanger and Berlanger (1983). Several children were able to tell sentences. excerpt illustrates the class discussion that tions are introduced. Anna. and Nichols Anna.11. Even kindergarten children. sentences that show how they solved story cident also illustrates that children as problems. stay in the class for two years. year-and-a-half. the children still thought that 9 should go in First and Second Grades the box in the equation. Children typically researchers.) Falkner. With number more. sentence by adding = 17. Most said Teachers should also be concerned about that 12 should go in the box because “eight children’s conceptions of equality as soon plus four equals twelve. miscon. Because 8 + 4 equals 12.” The following as symbols for representing number opera. children in the elemen. “is the same as. For some time. however. Falkner expected her students young as kindergarten age may have an to be successful. put 12 in the box. and some extended the tended period of time is required to estab. the equals sign ings did not have the same number of cubes comes at the end of an equation and only and were able to tell her which one had one number comes after it. Even after doing this activity. Usually. We had assumed that kinder. dents are regularly asked to write number amples or a simple explanation. Because you have to have the the equals sign is typically used in the el. asked them to solve the number sentence lations involving collections of objects but 8 + 4 = c + 5. The re- garten children would have little experi. ementary school. the stu- have difficulty relating this understanding dents answered the problem just as re- to symbolic representations involving the search indicated that they would. therefore. To her surprise. See? tary grades generally think that the equals [Counting on her fingers] It’s sign means that they should carry out the 8. Did anyone get another an- dren generally do not see the equals sign swer? as a symbol that expresses the relationship Adam. ap. that followed was interesting. the equals sign as a signal to compute. No (1975). Erlwanger. solving story prob- pear to have enduring misconceptions lems has been an integral part of math- about the meaning of the equals sign that ematics instruction in Falkner’s class.9. Is 8 + 4 the same as 12 + 5? As Behr.cubes.3 the teacher how they could make both = 54.

10 sides of an equation maintains the equality + 1 might be able to use the same mathematical relationship? These students can only try to principle to solve more difficult problems. considering Adam a class sentences.] The class wrestled with this prob. and muttering the box. All agreed that the first sentence was think about what Adam said? true and that the second was false. Adam. Adam is right. thus they will be able to equals sign means that they should do something? communicate and further reflect on these ideas. No. Gretchen. Why may we do that is central to arithmetic. the symbol chosen by mathematicians to represent the notion Anna. Whatever ing sentences. the number sentence 7 + 8 start solving this equation? Your first step probably = 7 +7 + 1 expresses a mathematical relationship involves subtracting 27 from 87. [Looking at The children’s reactions were interest- the rest of the class] What do you ing. of equality. the sign. Falkner. agreed with Adam and Dan. Falkner. then 27 less of the is expressed by that number sentence. by expressing 45 . It’s backward. means that however much something 4+5=9 12 . First. students are highly likely to arithmetic with the teaching of algebra. remember them incorrectly and not be able to apply teachers can help children increase their them flexibly. convention. Yes. Matz 1982). 234 . sufficient for many chil. but it’s the wrong way.] So. What about this sentence? 7 = 3 to equal what is on the other side: 8 + 4. distressed faces. however. the 8 + 2 = 10 + 4 7 + 4 = 15 . 3 + 4 does equal 7. a signal to do something. Consider. What about children who think that the such arithmetic ideas. the equation 4x + 27 = 87.20 + 2. A What chance do they have of being able to child who has many opportunities to express and understand the reason that subtracting 27 from both reflect on such number sentences as 17 . For example.5 = 9 7 = 3 + 4 is on one side of the equals sign. is on one side of the equals sign has Falkner. lem for some time. could prove these assertions by a number of cause that is what 8 + 4 equals. Children who first quantity must equal 27 less of the second understand equality will have a way of representing quantity. be. Yes.18 = 45 .” Falkner thought that it was side of it has to be equal. For these reasons. this discussion builds on the work leader. Let’s try this. so 7 goes in around. it makes sense she is explaining a very important relationship that that if two quantities are equal. [She models the not. Is that true here? appropriate to tell the class that she Anna. Adam.] of Robert Davis (1964). Other through discussion of true and false number children. Telling the class what the equals sign meant was Falkner. similar to the following. By doing so. you say that the equals sign ber sentences were true or false.” he or relationship between two expressions.9 = 17 . That’s what the equals sign dren to be able to adopt the standard use of means. from the class. If the equals sign signifies a 7 plus 7 is 14 and then 1 more would make 15. When a child says. The equals sign is a Ned. . such as 45 memorize a series of rules for solving equations. but it has to be 12.18. listen attentively. Because no logical reason Falkner. Yes. problem. How do you sentences. [Gesturing at the number to her students and asked whether the num- sentence on the chalkboard. This example Because such rules are not embedded in shows the advantages of integrating the teaching of understanding. “I so? We may do so because we subtract 27 from both don’t remember what 7 plus 8 is. Is it true or false? [Lots of squirming + 4 = 12 and 7 + 5 = 12. but I do know that sides of the equation. sign. I see. for think about relationships expressed by number example. But Adam has told us that the exists that the equals sign does not mean equals sign means that the quantity on each “compute.4 8 = 8 same amount has to be on the other side of the equals sign. giving one child seven Unifix About the Mathematics Children must understand that equality is a A second reason that understanding equality as relationship that expresses the idea that two a relationship is important is that a lack of such mathematical expressions hold the same value. They Anna. Falkner presented number sentences. means. would you say Falkner then chose to develop her stu- that again? dents’ understanding of the equals sign [Adam repeats his explanation. But the sentence is wrong. It is understanding is one of the major stumbling blocks important for children to understand this idea for two for students when they move from arithmetic to reasons. children need this understanding to algebra (Kieran 1981. They were less sure about the remain- Dan. children must understanding of arithmetic at the same time that they understand that equality is a relationship rather than learn algebraic concepts.

although Car- A discussion similar to the one in the spring rie is not yet convinced. of the children who had been in the Myra. yes. 7 + 10 proudly put 12 in the box. That child stands on the other side of her. to encourage chil- ber sentence caused confusion for many chil. Did anyone do it a different way? several about similar open number sen.” In the few re.] the following: c = 9 + 5. the fourth num. She also had the children sentence was true because 8 + 2 does equal write their own true and false number sen- 10. Second. First.] ensued. Does it make any difference location of the unknown. Carrie. so 17 + 10 shouldn’t write it would equal 27.] Falkner integrated discussion of Now. Lillie gave the most you figure this one out without even do- spirited explanation. and looked at facial expressions. 8 + 9 = c + 10. OK to put in the box. dis- appeared that the children were beginning cussions about equality became integrated to grasp this notion of equality but that the with discussions about other algebraic concept was not easily or quickly under. and she re- and a stack of three for the other hand. Some children thought the number equals sign. those in the examples. “Yes. tences. arithmetic concepts. Look at this num- thusiastically explained why the number 7 ber sentence: 4898 + 3 = 4897 + c . as the class agrees that Larry’s way gives the well as children who once again explained right answer and is easy. number sentences in which she varied the Falkner. Falkner was convinced that the no- on one side of her. she continued to present open Class. As Falkner tences gave the children an important con- listened to the discussions. dren to reflect on the meaning of the dren. about the equals sign. In the following ex- DECEMBER 1999 235 . 8 + 4 = c + 5. This time. more children began to understand equal- tence. noted who was text for discussing equality throughout the talking. Falkner contin. however. It has to be level. Think about what we know understood the notion of equality and en. cubes in a stack and asking him to stand stood. eight equals eight. but you just Falkner. 17 + 10 does room the previous spring correctly solved not equal 17. ity. a few children Falkner. do these two children have the same equality throughout the school year in two number of cubes? ways. but you just The Next Year equal 17. discussion: “Well. Each discussion had its doubters. but…. Both sides are even. 7 + 8 = c + 10. This class discussion was the first of Falkner. turned to it often as the year progressed. As the year progressed. which they do. others looked at is 17 and 8 + 9 is 17. In general. What maining weeks of school. more and When Falkner came to the final sen. the problem. she pre- Class. Look at this number sentence: shouldn’t write it that way.” more to 3. [Children shake their heads. Can belonged in the box. 4897 sign. [Gesturing with her hands] It is just is 1 down from 4898. Children who had a firm understand. but not all. it school year. The amount has to be the same on each side of the equals Larry.] the idea that each side of the equals sign had Such discussions about number sen- to “equal” the same amount. Yes. Falkner posed the same problem. same as 14. so 17 isn’t that way” In the fall. The tasks that Falkner used to ing of equality were able to explain that this build children’s understanding of equality number sentence was not true because 8 + were also tasks that build their understand- 2 is 10 and 10 + 4 is 14 and 10 is not the ing of number operations. Many new first graders Ned. to her class. As the year progressed. should go in the box? ued to give problems to her students with the equals sign in various locations. sented true and false sentences. [The class generally agrees. But 8 + 9 would eight. the class had the following Anna spoke for the students when she said. the sentence in confusion and asked for help. A few. It should be 17. so you need to add 1 like a teeter-totter. and 7 + c = 6 + 4. I think that 4 goes in the box. No. such as As you can imagine. “The equals sign ing the addition? means that it has to be even. tences. I think that 7 goes in the box. Right. In March. She gives another child tion of equality would take time for all a stack of four Unifix cubes for one hand the children to understand. Some examples which side of me they stand on? [She asks of these open number sentences included them to change places. the class was quite disturbed. eight equals Skip. 8 = 8.

” Educational Studies in Mathematics 12 (August 1981): 317- Conclusion 26. PMDC Technical Report. Behr.” In Proceed- you combine them. Discovery in Mathematics: them together. Anna. Adalira. Reprinted with permission from Math- dren looking forward to recess but the ex. of Teachers of Mathematics. municating mathematically and who are en- 236 TEACHING CHILDREN MATHEMATICS . Va. How Children View Equality ity. Myra. ings of the North American Chapter of the Anna. A Text for Teachers. ample. The class first tions of Equality and the Equal Symbol. Carolyn. and John Seeley Brown. edited by Derick Sleeman equals sign as a symbol describing a relation.S. ing agency. copyright 2000 by the National Council ploring a new world of thinking and com. This under- Falkner asked the class to look at the standing will allow them to reflect on sentence a = b + 2. New York: ship rather than as a “do it” sign. a or b? Children who think of the equals sign as a signal to do something would References have trouble with this problem. 1994. Tallahassee. Yes a has to be bigger because what. policy. Stanley. four. and their arguments for that position clearly in. Lillie. Discussions such as these. and Science (R305A60007-98). Stanley Erlwanger. a has the + 2 in it and b doesn’t. The class 153-87. of a. Fla. Office of Educa- As we reflect on our introduction of the tional Resreach and Improvement. cited contributions of children who are ex. this article was written before the end of the school year. and Catherine added to b and nothing is added to a.” In Intelligent that the children have learned to see the Tutoring Systems. Because Academic Press. They split the b and 2 apart. International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education. “Towards a Process Model ever-growing number of children. Erlwanger. ported in part by a grant from the U. to the notion of equality and the equals sign to this National Center for Improving Student class and others. ables. indicate for School Algebra Errors. Sentences. These are not the bored comments of chil. Educational Studies in Mathematics 35 (1998). Mass. Falkner. ematics Teaching in the Middle School. or endorsement of the support- of a child ready to play on one. Because 2 is Anenz-Ludlow. no. That plus 2 is part Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. as well standing of equality as they learn about as equality. Skip is genu. we found that at the end of the year. She said that the sen. In a pilot School Mathematics: Discussion Draft. Merlyn. Kieran. numbers and operations. These children are developing an under- standing of variables and operations. Montreal: 1983. Right. which involved an Matz. Opinions dren bring to the discussions. however.” agreed that a and b were symbols for vari. they Walgamuth.: Florida State University. I think a [is larger]. The research reported in this article was sup- teen out of sixteen children correctly an. 25-50. the children discuss a much more so. “Interpretations of the Equal Sign among ever b + 2 is has to be higher than b because Elementary School Children. phisticated problem that involves an under. Marilyn. joying the power of that new knowledge. Robert B. grade classroom in the same town. a brings Davis. partment of Education. inely outraged that anyone should fill in a blank so that an equation reads 17 = 27. we have not collected summary National Council of Teachers of Mathemat- data on children’s understanding of the prob. Reading. Why do you think that a is larger? 1975. ics (NCTM).. gene Nichols. larger. “Concepts Associated with the Equality Symbol. 3. study involving a similar first– and second– Reston. De- swered that 7 should go in the box. and Eu- dicate a sophisticated understanding of equal. “Third Graders’ Interpreta- might think that b is larger.: NCTM 1998. just as a box or triangle were. and Maurice Berlanger. ED 144 802. 1982. Lillie uses her expressed do not necessarily reflect the posi- teeter-totter metaphor with the enthusiasm tion. we continue to be amazed Learning and Achievement in Mathematics at the interest and excitement that the chil. then quickly agreed that a was larger. Together they have to be the same. ERIC No. Principles and Standards for lem 8 + 4 = c + 5 in this class. equations and will lay a firm foundation tence was true and asked the class which was for later learning of algebra. b + 2 has to be the same as a.: Jerry.

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