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ABSTRACT. This study builds on previous investigations that have compared the mathe-
matics achievement of Asian and American students by analyzing the arithmetical learning
contexts of children in Taiwan and in the United States. To this end, interviews were
conducted with parents and teachers to identify cultural beliefs about learning arithmetic,
ten lessons were video-recorded in one classroom in each country to identify classroom
social interaction patterns, and interviews were conducted with children to identify the
level of sophistication of their arithmetical concepts. Consistent with previous research,
the arithmetical understandings of the Chinese children were found to be generally more
advanced than those of their American counterparts. The analysis of the other data sources
indicates that these differences in understanding reflect two significant differences in the
sociocultural context within which Chinese and American children learn arithmetic. First,
the arithmetical learning activities in which the Chinese children engaged at home and in
school appeared to give them greater opportunities to construct consistenst arithmetical
concepts. These differences in the arithmetical learning activities used in the two countries
in turn appear to reflect different cultural beliefs about what constitutes normal or natural
development when children learn arithmetic. Second, the obligations the Chinese children
attempted to fulfill in order to be effective in the classroom were such that they had greater
opportunities to explain and to reflect on their arithmetical interpretations and solutions.
This in turn gave them greater opportunities to reorganize their thinking and construct
increasingly sophisticated arithmetical concepts.


The consistently superior mathematics achievement of Asian students over

American students from kindergarten through high school has been the
focus of a great deal of research activity. Numerous cross-cultural inves-
tigations have explored possible influences that might contribute to the
differences in the mathematics achievement of elementary school children
in the United States and Asian countries such as China, Korea, Japan, and
Taiwan (e.g., Fuson and Kwon, 1991; Miura and Okamoto, 1989; Song
and Ginsburg, 1987; Stevenson and Lee, 1990; Stigler et al., 1982; Stigler
and Perry, 1988). These studies have been conducted from a variety of
perspectives, and have given rise to several alternative explanations. How-
ever, none of these explanations appears to account for the documented

Educational Studies in Mathematics 28: 1-33, 1995.

(~) 1995 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

differences both before children enter school and once they have received
school instruction in mathematics.
Two general approaches can be distinguished in the previous investi-
gations. Studies of the first type focus on general cultural and educational
influences, such as the importance attributed to education and to mathemat-
ics achievement, beliefs about the determinants of mathematics achieve-
ment, and the style of mathematics instruction in the classroom (e.g.,
Stevenson and Lee, 1990). The identified differences in cultural beliefs
and values and in instructional approaches are then posited as explanations
of different levels of performance in mathematics. Studies of this type have
the merit of clarifying general sociocultural influences on children's math-
ematical learning in school. However, it seems important to complement
them with investigations that address the cross-cultural differences in arith-
metic performance that emerge before children enter school. In addition,
it might be fruitful to extend the focus on general cultural beliefs by con-
sidering beliefs that are specific to the learning of particular mathematical
Studies of the second type propose that Asian children's superior per-
formance in arithmetic is primarily due to the regular structure of Japanese
and Chinese-based number word systems (Miura and Okamoto, 1989).
For example, in contrast to the irregularities in the English number word
system, the Chinese equivalent of "nineteen" can be translated as "ten-
nine". Although investigations of this type deal with cultural differences
that are specific to mathematics, the explanations proposed are limited in
that they apply only to Asian children's superior performance in certain
areas of arithmetic such as counting and place-value numeration. As a
consequence, it is difficult to use the findings to account for differences in
achievement in other areas of mathematics.
Against the background of this previous work, this study sought to
identify sociocultural influences on children's arithmetical learning both
at home and at school that are specific to particular mathematical concepts
and yet might be paradigmatic and apply to other areas of mathematics.
An ethnographic approach was used in which the data collection and
analysis went hand in hand. The overall goal was to contribute to the
development of a comprehensive description of the arithmetic learning
contexts of American children and of Chinese children in Taiwan.


An extensive review of the research literature indicates that there are signif-
icant differences in the mathematical learning activities in which Asian and

American children typically engage. Further, it appears that these learning

activities are supported by and gain their raison d'Otre within different
systems of sociocultural beliefs, values, and practices (Yang, 1992). This
emerging notion of socioculturally-supported learning activities indicates
the relevance of investigating children's arithmetical learning as it occurs
in sociocultural context. An approach of this type is consistent with both
empirical evidence and with theoretical frameworks that emphasize the
socially and culturally situated nature of mathematical learning. Cross-
cultural studies (Gay and Cole, 1967; Ginsburg et al., 1981; Ginsburg,
1982; Posner, 1982; Saxe and Posner, 1983; Saxe, 1991) have consistently
documented that children construct mathematics concepts and skills that
are relevant to their needs and purposes as they engage in culturally-specific
mathematical practices. Taken together, these findings suggest that differ-
ences in access to and experiences of culturally-organized mathematics
practices profoundly influence the nature of children's mathematical con-
structions. The claim that mathematical learning is socioculturally situated
does not, of course, imply that children are merely the passive recipients of
culturally-transmitted mathematical knowledge. Bishop (1985a,b) argued
that the reconstruction of mathematical ways of knowing by succeeding
generations is not a simple one-way process.
Enculturation, as it is more formally called, is a creative, interactive process engaging those
living the culture with those born into it, which results in ideas, norms and values which
are similar from one generation to the next but which inevitably must be different in some
way due to the recreation role of the next generation. (pp. 88-89).

In giving this definition, Bishop emphasizes that cultural notions and

values are actively constructed in the process of living and interacting
with other people. These interactions can, of course, take many forms.
For example, children may initiate activities and receive endorsements,
sanctions, and support of various kinds. As they participate in these inter-
actions, the children must necessarily interpret those responses against the
background of their current, culturally-specific understandings. In doing
so, they actively contribute to the development of the ongoing interaction.
Mathematical enculturation can therefore be viewed as an interactive pro-
cess that is carried out within the constraints of sociocultural practices and
that results in the active recreation of mathematical ways of knowing. This
reconstructive process is supported both implicitly (by means of infor-
mal enculturation practices such as discourse, example, and cooperative
working) and explicitly (in the way the society organizes the activities that
children experience as formal instruction). In short, children's mathemat-
ics learning can be viewed as both an active, constructive process and a
culturally specific social process. Given that the focus of this study is on

cultural differences in mathematics achievement, the second of these two

perspectives on mathematical learning is the most relevant.
An extended and revised interpretation of Vygotsky's sociocultural
account of psychological development (Minick, 1989; Vygotsky, 1978)
offers a basis for understanding and inquiring into the sociocultural influ-
ences on children's mathematics learning. This account emphasizes that
individual development should not be analyzed in isolation from sociocul-
tural processes (Yang, 1992). There are three distinct but related analytic
units that Vygotsky and those who follow his thinking use to describe the
sociocultural processes that influence individual development. These are:
Socioculturally formed symbol systems (e.g., language and mathematics
symbols) and tools (Rogoff, 1990); communicative interactions with sig-
nificant others; and the joint activity with more mature members of the
culture (Erikson, 1986; Lave, 1982; Rogoff and Gardner, 1984; Rogoff
et al., 1989). The synthesis of this work with Bishop's sociocultural per-
spective on mathematics learning indicates the feasibility of investigat-
ing children's socioculturally-supported mathematics learning activities
by analyzing their social interactions, with more mature members of the
culture such as teachers and parents both in the classroom and in everyday
settings (Scholnick, 1988). Further, given the cross- cultural nature of the
study, it will be necessary to elaborate the institution, content, and influ-
ence of these socioculturally-supported learning activities in the course of
the analysis. Appropriate focal points for the study therefore include the
analysis of regulations and patterns in children's early arithmetic learning
activities, both at home and at school, the analysis of pervasive cultural
beliefs about arithmetic learning and teaching held by parents and teachers,
and the documentation of children's arithmetic competencies.


The Selection of Sites and Participants

The study was conducted in Lafayette, Indiana, United States and Taipei,
Taiwan. Although the teachers and parents who participated in the study
were volunteers, every attempt was made to ensure that they were not in any
significant way atypical. Ethnographies were conducted in one classroom
in each country during the first half of second grade in the U.S. and the latter
half of first grade in Taiwan to ensure that similar arithmetic topics were
covered (Fuson etal., 1989). As part of this process, ten children from each
classroom were interviewed to investigate their arithmetical conceptions
and competencies, and to relate these to the learning activities in which

they had participated. The nature of the sociocultural activities in which the
two groups of children participated was clarified by conducting interviews
with parents and teachers at each site. The issues raised in these interviews
were also selected to help clarify cultural beliefs about arithmetic learning
and teaching.

The Description of Sites and Participants

Due to difficulties in gaining access to other public schools, the study was
conducted in a public elementary school affiliated with National Taipei
Teachers College. However, in many repects, this school is a typical ele-
mentary school in Taiwan. For example, the school has six classrooms of
44-46 children at each grade level and most of the children live in the
neighborhood where the school is located. Further, in common with oth-
er schools in Taiwan, the school uses standardized textbooks and covers
the same mathematical topics at each grade level. In addition, mathemat-
ics instruction is conducted in line with recommendations given in the
Teacher's Guide. The primary difference between this and other schools
is that the teachers have more opportunity to be involved in research,
special instruction, and student teaching programs. At the time the study
was conducted, only two third-grade classrooms were involved in spe-
cial instruction programs. Further, no student teaching or other research
programs were being conducted in any of the first-grade classrooms.
There were forty-six children in the first-grade classroom in which the
study was conducted. Although the teacher, Teacher Chang, had taught
fifth and sixth grade for six consecutive years in another public school,
this was her first year of teaching first grade at this school. Ten arithmetic
lessons were video-taped in April and May, 1991. The main topics of these
lessons were addition and subtraction of numbers to twenty. In May and
June, 1991, video-recorded interviews were conducted with six boys and
four girls from the classroom. Initially, at Teacher Chang's suggestion, five
children considered to be average and two considered to be below average
were selected on the basis of their test scores on the monthly mathemat-
ics achievement test. Subsequently, three children whose performance in
mathematics was considered to be below average were interviewed on the
basis of the recommendations of the initial seven children interviewed.
Audio-taped interviews were conducted with thirteen teachers and three
mothers in June, 1991. Six of the teachers taught kindergarten, six taught
first grade, and one taught second grade. The three mothers who were
interviewed had all completed high school and two had bachelor's degrees.

A second-grade teacher and her students were selected from an average
socioeconomic status neighborhood school at the recommendation of the
school district's Elementary Schools Research Committee. At the time the
study was conducted, all elementary schools (from kindergarten through
the third-grade) in Lafayette had adopted Mathematics Their Way (Baratta-
Lorton, 1976), an activity-centered mathematics program, to supplement
the regular textbook. The eighteen children in the class were from mid-
dle and lower-middle class backgrounds. This class size was typical and
reflected the impact of a State-funded program to limit K-3 classes to
twenty children. The teacher, Nancy, had taught elementary school for six-
teen years. The student textbooks used in the classroom were Mathematics
Today (Harcourt et aL, 1985). In November, 1991, ten arithmetic lessons
were video-taped during a three-week period. The main arithmetic topics
addressed in these lessons were review of single-digit addition and subtrac-
tion and place-value, and instruction on the standard two- digit addition
and subtraction algorithms. In November and December, 1991, the ten
children who the teacher judged to be the most capable in mathematics
(three girls and seven boys) were interviewed.
Audio-taped interviews were conducted with two first-grade teachers
and three kindergarten teachers in December, 1991. With the exception of
one of the kindergarten teachers, all had been trained to use the Mathemat-
ics Their Way program. Of the six mothers interviewed, three had a child
in kindergarten, two had a child in the observed second-grade classroom,
and one had a child in another second-grade classroom. All six mothers
had completed high school and three had bachelor's degrees.

Data Collection and Analysis

One classroom visit was made at both sites before the video-taped class-
room observations began so that the researcher could become familiar with
classroom procedures. The individual children's interviews were conduct-
ed and video-taped after the classroom observations had been completed.
The interview tasks were adapted from those used by Steffe et al., (1988)
and focused on mental computation and conceptions of place value numer-
ation. In the first type of task, the children were asked how many rows of
ten beans could be made from three bean bags containing 43, 50, and 127
beans respectively. In the second type of task, addition problems were
posed by using strips to which were affixed ten squares. For example, in
a task corresponding to 57 + 28 = ?, the children were asked to find how
many squares there were in all when a collection of five strips and seven
individual squares was visible, and they were told that a collection of two

strips and eight squares was hidden beneth a cloth. In the third type of task,
the strips and squares were used to present missing addend problems. For
example, in a task corresponding to 33 + ? -- 63, the children were shown a
collection of three strips and three squares, told that there were 63 squares
in all, and asked to find how many squares were hidden beneath the cloth.
The audio-taped interviews with parents and teachers were conduct-
ed once the children's interviews had been completed. These interviews
focused on the kinds of arithmetic activities that should be provided for
children. The arithmetical topics discussed included the learning of number
word sequences, and the development of counting skills, place value con-
ceptions, and the ability to add and subtract two-digit numbers. For each
topic, the parents and teachers were asked whether they believed there
are specific methods or procedures that all children should learn (e.g.,
manipulate objects, count on fingers, use thinking strategies, memorize
facts and algorithms). They were also asked to clarify which methods they
emphasize and to judge the extent to which children typically need help or
direct instruction. Further, they were asked to state their expectations for
children's arithmetical competences at various ages or grade levels, and to
describe teachers' and parents' responsibilities for helping children learn.
Several additional issues were raised in the interviews conducted with
the teachers. These included the kinds of classroom activities that the
teachers consider most important for children's arithmetic development
and their expectations about children's arithmetical competencies when
they first come to their classroom at the beginning of the school year (i.e.,
kindergarten, first-grade, or second-grade). The teachers were also asked
to describe as specifically as possible the lessons in which they intro-
duce particular arithmetical concepts. Finally, in the interviews conducted
only with the American teachers, the differences between their traditional
instruction and the instruction proposed in the Mathematics Their Way
program were discussed.
The analysis of the data proceeded in three phases: the analysis of the
arithmetic learning activities, the analysis of classroom social interactions,
and the comparison of the socioculturally-supported learning contexts.
In the first of these phases, tentative hypotheses about the nature of the
arithmetic learning activities were developed while analyzing the class-
room video-recordings. These hypotheses were subsequently elaborated
while analyzing the children's interviews to develop tentative assertions
and explanations about the influence of the learning activities on children's
arithmetic development. These assertions and conjectures gave rise to fur-
ther issues that were clarified in the interviews with parents and teachers.

The interactional analysis, which began once the analysis of learning

activities had been completed, focused on the classroom contexts within
which the teacher and children talked about and did arithmetic. The overall
goal was to clarifiy the social processes by which culturally-organized and
supported learning activities were constituted in the course of classroom
In the final phase of the analysis, an attempt was made to further coordi-
nate the activity analysis with the interactional analysis and thus generate a
description of the children's socioculturally-supported arithmetic learning
contexts. In addition, a cross-sectional constant comparison was conducted
to compare cultural variations in the learning contexts established in the
two classrooms, and to relate them to the children's arithmetical compe-


Socioculturally-Supported Learning Activities

American Learning Activities
The interviews with the American parents and teachers indicated that
learning activities involving counting played a central role in the initial
development of number meanings. American mothers rarely interpreted
numbers in the teens as composites of a ten and so many ones when they
interacted with their children. Instead, they usually initiated and guided
the development of learning activities in which children completed tasks
involving numbers in the teens by counting by ones orally or with manip-
ulatives. Thus, the activities in which the children first learned about ten
involved counting to and beyond ten without the need to think of it as either
as a unit or as a number that might have special significance. In addition to
this emphasis on counting by ones, the American teachers had also used
one-to-one correspondence tasks to introduce numbers to 20 and beyond
prior to their training on the Mathematics Their Way program. The number
meanings that emerged from these activities were typically based on the
"one more than" relationship between consecutive numbers. For example,
14 is the number after 13, but is rarely thought of as a composite of a unit
of ten and four ones. The initial learning activities in which the American
children participated both at home and at school therefore encouraged them
to construct numerical concepts based on unitary, sequence meanings.
Both the interviews with parents and teachers, and the analysis of the
classroom video- recordings indicated that the American children's learn-
ing activities for basic addition and subtraction also consistently supported

unitary conceptions of number. They were first encouraged to determine

sums and differences by counting collections of manipulatives and by oral-
ly counting forwards or backwards by ones. For example, the children were
expected to solve tasks such as 8 + 6 = ? by combining collections of eight
and six objects and then counting all the objects to determine the sum. In
addition, they were taught to count on a number line. Here, they pointed to
either 8 or 6, counted the other addend by ones, and then read off the result,
14. Later, the children were expected to memorize and, after practice, to
be able to instantly recall the basic addition and subtraction combinations
as number facts. At this point in the instructional sequence "fact families"
(e.g., 4 + 5 = 9, 5 + 4 = 9, 9 - 4 = 5, 9 - 5 = 4) were introduced. However, both
the teachers' interviews and the classroom video-recordings indicated that
these fact families were viewed as associations to be memorized and then
recalled upon demand.
As an alternative to counting, the children were also taught to find
sums up to 20 by using derived thinking strategies based on the doubles.
For example, to solve the task 6 + 7 = ?, the children were encouraged to
think: 6 + 6 = 12 (Double), and 6 + 7 is a next neighbor of 6 + 6 , therefore
6 + 7 = 13. In another instance, 7 + 8 is a next neighbor of 7 + 7 or 8 + 8.
It should be noted that these doubles strategies are derived from unitary,
counting methods and involve the construction of relations of one more and
one less. Further, it should be stressed that despite the introduction of these
methods, the overriding goal when teaching basic addition and subtraction
appeared to be the memorization of fixed number combinations rather
than the establishment of a network of relationships between numerical
quantities. This emphasis on counting methods and instant recall appeared
to do little to support the American children's construction of increasingly
sophisticated numerical concepts and relations.
The coordination of counting by ones and grouping by tens first appeared
as part of the place-value topic taught prior to the introduction of two-digit
addition and subtraction. The American children were instructed to rec-
ognize and name the value of each digit of two-digit numerals and to
apply this skill when adding and subtracting two-digit numbers. On one
occasion, for example, the American children were asked to estimate how
many groups of ten could be made from a collection of, say, seventeen
beans. They then checked their estimates by putting ten beans in a cup and
counting the remaining beans. Later, when they added two-digit numbers,
the children were expected to estimate the sum of the numbers in the ones
column, and to decide whether they could make a ten. These learning activ-
ities appear to encourage the view that two-digit numbers can be formed
by juxtaposing a decade value with a ones value. However, it should be

noted that the proposed interpretation of two-digit numerals in terms of

collection-based units of ten and one is inconsistent with children's accus-
tomed unitary, counting-based interpretations. Thus, there appears to be an
inherent contradiction in the American approach to arithmetic instruction
in that the children's prior experiences might not constitute an adequate
basis for their subsequent learning. In accounting for this apparent contra-
diction, it should be noted that the rationale for introducing grouping by
tens appeared to be to facilitate the subsequent acquisition of procedural
knowledge - - the standard addition and subtraction algorithms. For exam-
ple, the steps the children were taught to follow when solving the problem
24 - 8 = ? were 4 is not enough to take away 8, borrow 10 from 20, then
add the 10 to the 4 to make 14, 14 - 8 = 6, add the 6 to the remaining 10
to total 16. For the task 24 + 8 = ?, the procedure was: 4 + 8 = 12, therefore
there is another ten, so add the ten to the remaining 20 to get 30, to the
30 add the leftover 2 to total 32. This attempt to conceptualize numbers
in terms of units of ten and of one had not occurred in any of the other
arithmetic learning activities in which American children had engaged.
To summarize, the American children were initially encouraged to con-
struct unitary number concepts based on counting by ones. They were then
expected to memorize addition and subtraction number relations based on
these unitary conceptions. In contrast, when the standard two-digit addition
and subtraction algorithms were introduced, the American children were
expected to reorganize their accustomed unitary, counting-based concepts
and construct collection-based concepts that involved units of ten and one.
It would therefore seem that the American children engaged in culturally-
specific arithmetic learning activities that supported their construction of
unitary number concepts but delimited their comprehension of the base-ten
numeration system.

Learning Activities of the Chinese Children in Taiwan

The interviews with parents and teachers indicated that the Chinese chil-
dren's initial learning of numbers less than ten was based on one-to-one
correspondence and on counting by ones orally and with manipulatives.
However, the Chinese children were usually encouraged to create a collec-
tion of ten when numbers in the teens were first introduced. For example,
for the number 11, learning activities typically involved placing ten objects
in a group and then placing an extra object beside the group. Consistent
with the linguistic structure of the Chinese number word system, Chinese
mothers usually treated the teen numbers and, more generally, two-digit
numbers as composites consisting of tens and extra ones when they inter-
acted with their children. Thus, the additive property of numeration systems

(Ross, 1989), that is, the quantity represented by the two-digit numerals is
the sum of the values represented by individual digits, was implicit in the
mothers' interventions from the outset. It was also apparent from the inter-
views that the Chinese mothers believed that young children could learn
to interpret numbers in this way relatively easily. In general, it appears that
the Chinese children had repeated opportunities to view ten as a significant
number and to conceptualize two-digit numerals as composites of tens and
ones before they went to school.
The analysis of the classroom video-recordings indicated that Chinese
children's initial school activities in arithmetic were, for the most part,
consistent with the activities initiated by their mothers. One-to-one cor-
respondence activities were used to introduce the numbers from five to
ten. Subsequent instructional activities involved partitioning single-digit
numbers. For example, having partitioned five into one and four, two and
three, and four and one, the children were encouraged to view five as the
sum of three and two, etc. This approach was then extended to the teen
numbers and to two-digit numbers in general. The thinking encouraged
was, for example, that ten and seven make ten-seven (seventeen), and that
three units of tens and two units of one make three-ten-two (32). The initial
instructional activities that the Chinese children engaged in at school as
well as at home therefore appeared to support the construction of numerical
concepts which involved a sequence meaning, the significance of ten, and
the composition of units of ten and one.
The learning activities for the addition and subtraction of single-digit
numbers initiated by the Chinese mothers were similar to those experi-
enced by the American children and involved counting methods. These
methods were, however, discouraged when basic addition and subtraction
was introduced at school. The children were instead taught to solve tasks
in which the sum or minuend was greater than ten by using the up-over-ten,
the down-over-ten, and the subtract-from-ten methods. From the adult's
perspective, these methods are based on number relationships involving
ten and offer children a way to decrease their reliance on counting meth-
ods. For example, to solve 8 +5 = ?, the steps are: 8 needs 2 to make 10,
therefore, shift 2 from the 5 to the 8, make 10, and then add the remain-
ing 3 for a total of 13 (8 + 5 = 8 + 2 + 3 = 10 + 3 = 13). The method used to
solve the problem 15 - 8 = ? is: 15 - 5 - 3 = 7 or 10 - 8 + 5 = 7. It should
be noted that these methods build on the prior learning activities in which
the children were encouraged to partition and recombine numbers. Further,
the first two of the sample solutions given above can be constructed by
curtailing counting by ones. The interviews conducted with the Chinese
children will document the extent to which these learning activities gave

the Chinese children opportunities to experience multiple uses of numbers

and to construct increasingly sophisticated numerical concepts.
In the recent research literature, the Chinese computational methods
described above have been discussed with regard to their role in advanc-
ing Chinese children's mental computation abilities (Fuson et al., 1989).
However, the primary function of the notion of decade-is-a-unit-to-count
("Sh ke i shu" in Chinese) is to serve as precursor to subsequent instruction
on two-digit computational algorithms, which are developed by extending
these methods. Instructional activities involving the decade-is-a-unit-to-
count emphasize the grouping of objects by ten. In the process, children
are encouraged to conceptualize ten as an unit which itself is composed
of ten ones. In contrast to the American approach of providing formal
instruction on place value, the significance of ten emerges while develop-
ing thinking strategies to derive the solution for addition and subtraction
problems. It was apparent from the interviews that the Chinese teachers
believed these thinking strategies make it relatively easy for children to
solve addition and subtraction tasks. As a consequence, they considered it
unnecessary to teach children to memorize the basic number facts.
In sum, the learning activities experienced by the Chinese children did
not treat place value numeration as a separate topic. The children were
instead consistently encouraged to construct numerical relationships that
gave special significance to ten. They therefore appeared to have greater
opportunities than did their American counterparts to develop compos-
ite, multiunit numerical conceptions as they participated in a range of
socioculturally-supported learning activities.

The Classroom Community

The analysis of the classroom video-recordings revealed significant differ-
ences in the quality of the interactions that occurred in the two classrooms.
The rules of transcription are:

T refers to the teacher,

Ss refers to three or more children,
s refers to an individual child,
() encloses additional description deemed helpful,
(...) indicates an inaudible response,
*** indicates a brief pause or a sentence trailing off, and
[] describes actions.

~nS Ones


Fig. l. Placevaluesheet

The American Classroom

T h e w a y in w h i c h l e a r n i n g activities were t y p i c a l l y i n t e r a c t i v e l y c o n s t i -
t u t e d in N a n c y ' s c l a s s r o o m is illustrated b y an e p i s o d e w h i c h f o c u s e s o n
the a d d i t i o n o f t w o - d i g i t n u m b e r s . In this activity, the c h i l d r e n h a d p l a c e
v a l u e sheets o n w h i c h they c o u l d p u t c o l l e c t i o n s o f t e n b e a n s into " p o r t i o n
c u p s " (See Fig. 1). N a n c y w o r k e d a l o n g with the c h i l d r e n b y m a n i p u l a t i n g
b e a n s o n a n o v e r h e a d projector. H e r i n t e n t in this e p i s o d e a p p e a r e d to be
to r e f o r m u l a t e the c u p s a n d b e a n s as u n i t s o f ten a n d one, a n d to u s e the
m a n i p u l a t i o n s o n the p l a c e v a l u e sheets as a m o d e l for t w o - d i g i t addition.

T: On the top row, boys and girls, I want you to put 29 beans. Now, boys and girls
use your portion cups. 29. How are you going to do that?
s: Two of your tens.
5 T: You are going to use your tens, 2 tens and nine. Two tens and nine is 29. ***. Two
tens and nine. [Nancy goes around the class to make sure the children have 2 portion
cups and nine beans on the first row of their place value sheets].
T: How many portion cups to get your 177
10 s: One.
T: Just one, you get ten. How do you get seven?
s: Take away.
T: You can count up your beans or you can take out beans from your portion cups.
How many would you take out to get seven?
15 s: That would be 3.
T: Double check, before we add them together. Do you have 29 in the top row? How
many X's (on the place value sheet) have you left out of the cups on the top row. Is
there an empty X on the top row? In the second row, you should have 27. I am sorry
17. Double check, how many X's are not covered in the middle row. Rachel?
22 Rachel: 3.
T: 3. Do we all have the right numbers to start with. [Nancy goes around the classroom
to check and correct the children's place value sheets]. Are we ready to add?
s: Yes.

26 T: Listen, move all your ones to the bottom of the X's column.***
Push all of your tens to the bottom of tens column and let us see how many you end
up with. What did you say, Clayton?
Clayton: I can make another ten.
30 T: How can you make another ten already?
Clayton: There are lots of them.
32 T: There are lots of them. I want you to think with me. How many X's do you have
on the top row. Clayton?
34 Clayton: Nine.
T: How many X's do you have on the second row. Clayton?
Clayton: Seven.
37 T: Nine and seven. Do you think you can end up with ten, when you add nine and
•seven? [Clayton nods his head. Children make noises].
40 T: Please don't shout out. I want to hear what everybody wants to say. Cover all of
your X's (speaking to the class). Do you get a set of ten? Use your portion cups.
[Children make noises]. Wait, did you cover all your X's? Do you make enough to
make a set of ten? Move to the ten's side. Do you have any left over? Look at your
X's. Tell me how many X's you end up with.
46 Lauren: 6.
T: How many portion cups do you end up with?
Lauren: 4.
49 T: You did have enough to set up a portion cup. You have this many [moving all
beans to the bottom on the over-head]. They were enough to make ten, weren't they?
*** Count those for me by tens. Lauren.
53 Lauren: 10, 20, 30, 40; 46.
T: 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46 [pointing at beans]. ***
55 T: Look at the over-head just a minute, boys and girls. *** All these on the paper or
on the textbook will look like this. How many on your top row did we start with?
58 Ss: 29. [Nancy writes 29 on the over-head].
T: 29. How many on your •middle row?
Ss: 17. [Nancy writes 29 + 17 vertically in standard form].
61 T: Just like we did it a minutes ago, we push all ones together in our heads. You say
9, 7, 16. If you can do the nine rule, how many of this 7 to get 9.
Ss: One.
65 T: That is a portion cup (9 + 1), so we have six single ones and a portion cup (writing
16 on the over-head). We need to put one portion cup over here (pointing to the
tens column), because it goes to the tens column. Now, I don't want to put it down
here (pointing at the bottom of the tens column), because I did not add my portion
cups yet. But I have a portion cup and six. Now, I add my portion cup to the portion
cup side [crossing out the 2 of 29 and writing down 3], 1 and 3, 4. We have four
portion cups ]writing down 4 on the bottom of the tens column], and we end up with
46 beans. Now make sure you remember, when you do your ones, you have a big
enough number to make a portion cup, you need to move to your tens side, and you
have to write down: Yes, I made a portion cup. Then change this tens column to (...).
See what we can do without portion cups.

Nancy then writes 35 + 14 verticallyand asks the children to do it with her. (November
15, 1991)
The analysis of this and other transcripts indicates that, in general,
learning to manipulate materials appropriately in response to the teach-
er's explicit directions and demonstrations constituted the first phase of
instructional activities in Nancy's classroom. The teacher's role was that
of a specifier and validator, and the children's role was that of direction-
followers and imitators. In the process of fulfilling her obligations to both
the children and to the school as a social institution, Nancy gave procedural
instruction (e.g., line 1 - I want you to put 29 beans on the top row), evalu-
ated the children's manipulations and responses (e.g., line 6-7 - correcting
children's manipulations), drew children to her interpretive stance (line 32
- I want you think with me); and interpreted the results of their manip-
ulations (e.g., lines 49-52). In an attempt to cooperate with the teacher,
children were obliged to follow the teacher's procedural instructions (e.g.,
line 2 - use your portion cup), produce acceptable manipulations (lines
17-19 - Is an empty X on the top row?), respond as the teacher watched
them (line 30-37), and give the desired replies to known-answer questions
(e.g., lines 47-48). The teacher, as a mathematical authority, specified
nearly all the actions the children were to perform. In the absence of dis-
cussions of mathematical meanings and interpretations, the children were
obliged to keep their personal interpretations to themselves and to guess
what the teacher might have in mind when she posed questions and gave
instructions. As a consequence, arithmetic was interactively constituted as
a set of instructions that might appear arbitrary from the children's per-
spective. It should also be noted that the children did not have to construct
increasingly sophisticated place value conceptions in order to fulfill the
teacher's expectations and thus participate effectively in the development
of the lesson. This observation is particularly significant given that many
of the children might have been accustomed to making unitary numerical
It can also be noted that as the children were not expected to explain
their thinking, their ideas might have been very different from those that
the teacher had in mind. Note, for example, the following exchange in the
preceding episode:
T: How many portion cups to get your 17?
s: One.
T: Just one, you get ten. How do you get seven?
s: Take away.
T: You can count up your beans or you can take out beans from your portion cups. How
many would you take out to get seven?
s: That would be 3.

T: Double check, before we add them together.

In this case, because the teacher did not ask for explanations, children
could produce the correct answers and thus be effective without conceptu-
ally creating a unit of ten. The child's answer of "one" could, for example,
have meant one cup as a singleton rather than one unit often. The restriction
of the children's answers to brief phrases made it possible for the lesson to
proceed smoothly even when the teacher and children made incompatible
interpretations (Voigt, 1985). As a further point, when children's answers
were incorrect in the teacher's view, she initiated the development of a fun-
nel pattern of interaction (Bauersfeld, 1988) by giving increasingly explicit
cues and directions. In the following episode, for example, the teacher and
students are solving the task 35 + 14 = ? on place value sheets.
T: All right, we did the ones first, so we push all of these together (pointing at the 5 of
35 and the 4 of 14), so how many do I have at the bottom, Greg?
Greg: (no response).
T: You have 5 on the top, you have 4 on the bottom. How many beans would you have?
Greg: (no response).
T: Just the single ones [covering the 3 and 1 of 35 and 14 respectively].
Greg: (no response).
T: You know what 5 and 5 is.
Greg: 10.
T: What is 5 and 4.
Greg: 9.
T: Do you have enough to make a new portion cup (speaking to the class)? Do you have
enough to make another set of ten?
Ss: No.
(November 15, 1991)

The children's role as they participated in the constitution of patterns

of this type was to produce answers that, from the teacher's perspective,
indicated understanding. However, in an attempt to cooperate with the
teacher, children could in practice produce the desired response by guessing
on the basis of the teacher's cues and questions.
As a second example of the funnel pattern, consider the following
T: He got past a hundred. He ended up with a hundred and thirty. How many tens will
that be? [no response from Clayton.]
T: Hereisyour number [writes 130 ontheboard],thinkofyour calender bar. How many
sets of ten will there be?
Tony: 3.
T: No, here is your ten (pointing at the 13 of 130, and then covering the 0 of 130), so
how many tens?
Tony: 13.
(November 13, 1991)

In this brief exchange, the teacher attempted to induct Tony into her
interpretative stance with regard to place value. However, her non-verbal
cues might well have enabled him to produce the answer she expected in the
absence of conceptual understanding. Tony would then have participated
effectively in the interaction by entering into a social guessing game rather
than by constructing arithmetical meaning. Here, as elsewhere, the children
could be effective by memorizing procedural instructions and inferring the
responses the teacher wanted.
In sum, the children's individual interpretations were not part of the
public classroom discourse. Consequently, it was not necessary for them
to construct personally-meaningful solutions that they could explain and
justify. Instead, it was possible for the children to contribute to the devel-
opment of the lesson by guessing what the teacher had in mind and by
memorizing manipulative and symbolic procedures. That is, the children's
effective attainment of competence in the classroom could, in large mea-
sure, have been based on social problem solving rather than on arithmetical
problem solving. As a consequence, the children could rely on counting by
ones, mastery of number facts, and memorized manipulative procedures
to give desired responses.

The Chinese Classroom

Teacher Chang's primary instructional strategy was to lead whole-class
discussions in which the children were expected to explain their solutions.
After each contribution, she stressed and rephrased what she considered
was worth repeating to the class before another child was given the floor.
In short, Teacher Chang, as a mathematical authority, asked questions to
which she knew the appropriate response. The children, for their part, vol-
untarily gave explanations, and then the teacher evaluated their responses.
This teacher initiation, student response, teacher-evaluation (I-R-E) pat-
tern (Mehan, 1979) was similar to the interaction pattern established in
the American classroom. However, in contrast to the American classroom,
the theme of these exchanges was to develop explanations rather than to
specify procedures and computational results. This is illustrated by the
following episode which involves comparing two number sentences.
[There are two number sentenceswritten on the blackboard: 15 - 9 = 6 and 10 - 9 + 5 = 6].
T: How do these two 6s (the answers of 6) relate to each other? Children, think about it,
and explain it. Any differences?Any similarities? [Somechildren raise their hands].
Tsia: 10 is 5 less (than 15).
T: What is 10 less than?
Tsia: 10 is 5 less than 15.
T: 10 is 5 less than 15, isn't it?

Ss: Yes.
T: I0 is 5 less than 15. Why does that equal 6? Who else helps us to explain? [Chert
raise his hand]. Chen?
Chen: 1 add 5.
T: 1 add 5. Why add 5?
Chen: Adding 5, (It) becomes more.
T: Why does it become more? Why add 5 more? Because, *** Does anybody know
why? He (Chen) did not explain it completely. Hart?
Han: It becomes (equals) 6, because 10 is 5 less than 15.
T: Very good. 10 is 5 less than 15, so 1 (pointing at 10-9) add 5 equals 6. This 6
(15 - 9 = 6) and that 6 (10 - 9 + 5 = 6) become the same. Do you agree? If you agree,
raise your hand.
(May 20, 1991)

A s this e p i s o d e illustrates, T e a c h e r C h a n g did not attempt to funnel the

c h i l d r e n ' s e x p l a n a t i o n s b y g i v i n g cues w h e n they were n o t those that she
had in mind. Instead, she persisted in soliciting alternative explanations
f r o m different children until the explanation that she e x p e c t e d w a s given.
F o r e x a m p l e , in the f o l l o w i n g episode, the children were a s k e d to verify
that 3 + 2 + 8 - - 13.
1 T: How do you know that 3 plus 2 plus 8 equals 13?
2 Min: Because 5 plus 8, *** [trying to use fingers to indicate her computation].
4 T: Who wants to help Min explain? [Some children raise their hands.] (Child) number
6 #43: Count to 8 [showing eight fingers], then add 5; therefore, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 [counting
on left hand fingers], and 11, 12, 13 [counting on three right hand fingers].
9 T: He is counting. Any other method? [Some children raise their hands.] Sin.
Sin: Count 8 first, then 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 [counting on fingers].
13 T: He is counting too. Any different method? [Some children raise their hands.] Wei.
Wei: 2 plus 8 equals 10, then 10 plus 3 equals 13.
16 T: All right! He is using the method of decade-is-a-unit-to-count.
(April 10, 1991)

In this case, as a c o n s e q u e n c e o f the t e a c h e r ' s negative evaluations

(e.g., lines 9 and 13), the children had to d e v e l o p alternatives to c o u n t i n g
to be effective.
T h e f o l l o w i n g e p i s o d e is presented i n order to clarify the types o f
learning opportunities that arose for the children as they attempted to
fulfill their obligations in the classroom. Here, the t e a c h e r and students
w e r e d i s c u s s i n g a H u n d r e d B o a r d w i t h o u t n u m b e r s written on it.
T: This is a Hundred Board. How do you (children) know there are 100 squares in
this Hundred Board? Who knows? [Some children raise their hands]. You speak.
3 Sa: There are 10 units [pointing at the first row], 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100
[pointing at the numbers on the left side of the Hundred Board].
6 T: Children, do you understand?
Ss: No.

8 T: I will ask other children to clarify your explanation.

9 Duen: 10 (pointing across the first row), 20 (pointing across the second row), 30, 40,
50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100.
11 T: If you did not understand his explanation, raise your hand. [Some children raise
their hands.] Someone does not understand. Who else can help us to explain (this
Hundred Board)?
14 Min: This is the first unit (the top left corner). The last one (of this row) is the
10th unit. Therefore, there are 10 units for each row. There are 10 rows (pointing at
numbers on the left side), so, 10 units, add 10, 20 units, add 10, 30 units, add 10, 40,
add 10, 50, add 10, 60, add 10, 70, add 10, 80, add 10, 90, add 10, 100.
20 T: Someone still does not understand. Hat, you explain why they are 100 squares for
Har: There are 10 units for each row. Totally, there are 10 rows, so 100.
24 T: How do you know 10 rows are 100 units? Could they be 1000 or 200?
Har: There are 10 squares (for each row).
T: There are only 10 units for each row, so, I0 rows are 100 units.
29 Har: In addition, they (rows) are decade-is-a-unit-to-count.
T: Now, she speaks it out, this is the explanation that I want to hear, decade-is-a-unit-
to-count [writing it on the board]. We count 10 the first time, how many do we count
the second time?
34 Ss: 20.
T: The third time?
Ss: 30.
37 T: The fourth time? (The teacher keeps asking similar questions until the answer 100
is produced.)
39 T: Decade-is-a-unit-to-count, (namely), we count 10 units each time, after we count
I0 times, we have 100 units.

The teacher then p o s e d further problems and asked the children to solve
t h e m b y using the decade-is-a-unit-to-count method. (April 23, 1991)
The instructional goal of this lesson introduction was to teach the chil-
dren the method of decade-is-a-unit-to-count. In order to develop the les-
son, the teacher, as the mathematical authority, asked questions, evaluated
children's explanations, and then lead the class through the specific expla-
nation that she had determined was appropriate before the lesson b e g a n
(i.e., decade-is-a-unit-to-count). Because the teacher did not evaluate the
initial explanations positively (lines 8, 12, and 20), the children were
obliged to develop alternative explanations (lines 5-7, 9-10, 14-19, and
20-29). In addition, because the teacher called for clarification (lines 2, 8,
and 11), stressed the importance of understanding (lines 6, 11-12, and 20),
challenged explanations (lines 24-35), and allowed justifications (lines
24-29), the children had opportunities to reflect on their own and other
children's arithmetic activity.
At end o f the elicitation (lines 30-31), the teacher legitimized a child's
explanation (i.e., this is what I want to hear) and then reformulated it
into what she considered to be the official explanation. Thus, although

the children might realize that there are several ways to think about and
do arithmetic, it was also made clear to them that there was a w a y that
their teacher preferred, and they were expected to learn it. In general,
a pattern o f social interaction was established in which questions that
required explanations were used to develop the lesson, and the children
could be seen as s o m e w h a t active partners in the d e v e l o p m e n t o f the
m a t h e m a t i c a l agenda.
O n c e an official method of solution was produced, Teacher C h a n g
usually provided practice tasks which the children were expected to solve
b y using this method. The children were therefore obliged to at least give
the a p p e a r a n c e that they had modified their current thinking. The individual
interviews conducted with the children will indicate the extent to which
these modifications involved the d e v e l o p m e n t of conceptual understanding
rather than the m e m o r i z a t i o n of official methods as instructional procedures
to be followed. In the following example, the teacher expected the children
to f o r m a group o f ten iron squares f r o m a collection of seven white iron
squares and five blue iron squares by explaining: seven units o f white need
three units o f blue to m a k e ten units.
T: Children, look at page 43. What does this picture show (There are 7 white iron squares
and 3 blue iron squares inside a circle and 4 extra blues units outside the circle)?
Chen [Chen and other children raise their hand].
Chen: 7 plus 7 equals 14.
T: So simple? If it were so simple, the textbook would not teach you how to do it.
Did you pay attention to your textbook? Other explanations? Min, you explain [Min
raises her hand].
Min: Group of ten units (or iron squares).
T: Good, this is what we are going to talk about. If we want to group 10 units, how
many are we going to group?
Ss: 10 units.
T: Count 10 units at one time. But, there are only 7 blue units. What we are going to do?
Ss: Add 3 units.
T: Three what?
Ss: 3 units of white.
T: Add 3 whites to 7 blues. Therefore, they are enough to make a group of 10 units
[drawing a circle around 7 blues and 3 whites on the blackboard]. In this way, there
are 10 units inside the circle, then, 11, 12, 13, 14 (pointing at whites outside the
circle). Therefore, 7 plus 3 plus 4 equals 14. (April 24, 1991).
In this case, the up-over-ten method rather than counting by ones was
legitimized as the official solution. In the process, a culturally-specific
arithmetical practice as institutionalized in the course of the c l a s s r o o m
social interactions.
In sum, Chinese children's arithmetical activity involved developing
and justifying solutions to arithmetic tasks that were posed as problems.

Initially, the children had the opportunity to consider the variety of arith-
metic ideas that they brought to the problem. However, they were subse-
quently obliged to adopt official explanations and solution methods.

The teacher and children in both classrooms repeatedly constituted the
elicitation-response- evaluation pattern. Consequently, both the American
and the Chinese students could be effective by figuring out what the teach-
er had in mind. The differences between the two classroom communities
concern the themes of the interactions and the learning opportunities for
the students. The discourse in the American classroom involved what Voigt
(1985) calls verbal reduction in that the children's contributions were at
most brief phrases. Further, their responses involved either specifying a
step in a computational procedure or stating a computational result. They
could therefore be effective by guessing what the teacher had in mind on
the basis of her cues and questions. The overriding goal of some of the
Chinese students might also have been to figure out how the teacher want-
ed them to respond. However, they were required to give explanations,
and the teacher rarely attempted to funnel them to the desired response.
It therefore seems unlikely that they could be effective by merely guess-
ing on the basis of superficial cues. Instead, there is every indication that
they had to develop increasingly sophisticated numerical understandings in
order to fulfill the teacher's expectations. Thus, in contrast to their Amer-
ican counterparts, the Chinese children benefited from both consistent
arithmetic learning activities and from the learning opportunities inher-
ent in discussions which had explanations as a major theme. This implies
that the socioculturally- supported arithmetic learning activities in which
the Chinese students participated tended to facilitate the development of
conceptual understanding to a greater extent than did those in which the
American children participated. This, of course, is not to claim that the pat-
terns of interaction constituted in the Taiwanese classroom are necessarily
optimal for mathematical learning. It can be noted, for example, that the
discussion in this classroom are not as open as either those in the Japanese
elementary mathematics classrooms described by Stigler, Fernandez and
Yoshida (1992) or those envisioned in recent reform documents (National
Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1989, 1991).


American Children
In the first set of interview tasks, the children were asked how many rows
of ten beans could be made from bean bags containing 43, 50, and 127
beans, respectively. S e v e n of the ten children interviewed were able to
solve the task with the 43-bean bag by reasoning that four tens make 40;
therefore, there would be 4 rows with 3 beans left. Further, for the task with
50 beans, they reasoned that five rows of ten beans make 50 beans. For
the 127-bean bag, six of them explained that ten rows of ten beans make
100 beans, and 27 makes 2 rows with 7 beans, so there is 12 rows. One of
the six children, Jordan, explained, "Because ten sets is 100, there are 10
rows and 27 beans left." The remaining three children (Heidi, Michael, and
Zachary) initially did not know how to solve the first task with 43 beans.
When the interviewer rephrased the question as "How many portion cups
could be made from 43 beans?" they were able to solve the task by saying
four portion cups with three beans left. They were also able to respond to
the tasks with the 50-beans bag and the 127-beans bag when the questions
were rephrased (i.e., "How many portion cups?"). For the task with the 127-
beans bag, Heidi and Michael explained that because ten sets is 100, there
must be 10 portion cups and 27 beans left. Zachary's answer was 12 portion
cups and 7 beans. The difficulties these three children experienced until
the interviewer intervened and rephrased the tasks in terms of portion cups
suggest that their understanding of place-value numeration was closely
tied to the specific manipulative actions they had been taught to perform
in the classroom. In addition, the two children who did not realize that
the remaining 27 beans could make either another two portion cups or
another two rows might have memorized that ten sets of ten is 100. The
solutions that Heidi, Michael, and Zachary gave to these tasks therefore
suggest that their concepts of place-value numeration might have been
relatively immature. This inference is consistent with their solutions to
other interview tasks in that they usually counted on their fingers by ones
or relied on situation-specific imagery.
In the second type of task, addition problems were posed by using strips
to which were affixed ten squares, and individual squares. The children
used two distinct types of methods to solve these problems: Counting-
based methods and mental computational methods. The counting-based
solutions to the task corresponding to 57 + 28 = ? were:

Heidi and Michael counted the squares on the five visible strips and then the seven
individual squares by ones starting from 28.

Zachary and Jordan: 10, 20 (pointing at the screened collection), 30, 40, 50, 60, 70
(pointing at the visible strips), 70, 71 .... 78 (with fingers), 79, 80 .... 85 (counting the
visible squares).

The remaining children solved the task by computing mentally.

Lauren: 50 plus 20 equals 70, 7 plus 8 makes another ten, and add all tens together,
and (add) the rest 5, 85.
Brandon and Brittany: (50 plus 20 equals) 70, 7 and 8 (is 15), I make another ten, 85.
Shawn: (20 plus the 20 of 50 equals) 40, 50, 70, 80, 85, because 8 plus 2 is another
ten, should be 85.
Craig: 8 and 7, 8 and 8 is 16, it is a double, (so 7 plus 8 equals) 15.5(50) and 3(30
equals 20 plus 10) is 8 (80), and 5, 85.
Clayton: Make another ten (7 plus 8), *** (He then confounds adding tens and ones)

W h e r e a s Heidi and Michael relied on counting by ones, Zachary and

Jordan s e e m e d to imagine a specific collection of strips and squares under
the cloth. T h e y first counted all the strips and then all the squares. The
children who used mental computational methods appeared to interpret
the visible and screened collections as composites of tens and ones. T h e y
then relied on their k n o w l e d g e of the basic facts (e.g., 18 equals 9 plus
9, and 7 plus 8 m a k e another ten) to arrive at the answer of 85. The
w a y in which the children added the tens first indicates they were not
simply relying on the computational procedures they had been taught in
class. Their solutions to a third type of task clarify both the strengths and
w e a k n e s s e s of their place-value conceptions.
In these tasks, missing addend problems were posed by using collec-
tions of visible and screened strips and squares. The solutions to a task
corresponding to 33 + ? = 73, were as follows.
Heidi, Michael, and Zachary attempted to count on from 33 by ones on their fingers,
Jordan: 43, 53, 63, 73 (puts up four fingers), 4 strips, 40 squares.
Clayton: 3 and 3 are the same. Here is 30 (visible squares). 40, 50, 60, 70 (pointing
at the screened collection), 40 (squares).
Craig, Brittany, Lauren, Brandon and Shawn: 3 (strips) plus 4 (strips) equals 7 (strips),
because (the) 3 (of 33) and (the) 3 (of 73) are the same.

Heidi, Michael, and Zachary also attempted to count by ones to solve

the second missing addend task, which corresponded to 33 + ? = 76. The
remaining seven children's solutions to this task were:
Jordan and Clayton: 43, 53, 63, 73 (putting up fingers on one hand), and 74, 75, 76
(putting up fingers on the other hand), so 43.
Brandon, Lauren and Brittany: 3 (strips) plus 4 (strips) equals 7 (strips). Put 3
(squares) over here (screened collection), so there should be 43 (squares).
Craig: Last time is 40 (33 + ? = 73). This time is 43, because this time (there) is 76
(in all).

Shawn: 43 (squares), because 3 (strips) plus 4 (strips) equals 7 (strips), 3 (squares of

33) plus 3 (squares) equals 6 (squares), that is 43.
Consistent with their solutions to the addition tasks, Heidi, Michael,
Zachary, and Jordan attempted to solve the missing addend tasks by using
counting-based methods. The first three children were limited to counting
by ones, whereas, for Jordan, the visible strips seemed to signify units of
ten that could be counted. Clayton also counted by tens and ones. The
remaining five children used mental computation methods that involved
first finding how many strips were covered and then how many squares
were covered as separate tasks.
The third missing addend task, which corresponded to 39+ ?=68,
required the conceptual coordination of tens and ones and could not be
solved by dealing with the strips and then the squares separately. Only
Brandon was able to give a reasonable explanation of how he had solved
this task. The children's attempts to solve this task are documented below:
Zachary produced the answer 28 by guessing.
Heidi and Michael attempted to solve this task by counting on from 39 by ones on
their fingers.
Jordan and Clayton were unable to solve the task and responded, "I don't know how
to do it."
Craig, Brittany, and Shawn initially gave 30 as their answer. When the researcher
asked, "But I think 39 plus 30 is 69, "Craig and Brittany responded, "I don't know
how to do it," and
Shawn responded, "Take away 1 square (from the 39 visible squares) from here, and
it will be 68 (38 plus 30 equals 68)."
The children's failure to realize that increasing 39 by 30 would give
too large a result strongly indicates that although they conceptualized the
visible and screened collections as so-many tens and so-many ones, they did
not view these units as themselves composing a numerical whole. Thus,
the conceptual creation of numerical part-whole relationships involving
units of ten and one appeared to be beyond their current capabilities.
Of the remaining two children, Lauren produced the correct answer
of 29 but was unable to explain her thinking. She merely said, "It came
up from my mind." However, Brandon responded: "30, no, should be 20,
3 here (pointing at visible 3 strips), 2 (strips) here (pointing at screened
collection), then make another ten here (moving 1 visible square to screened
collection), so you have twenty...nine." Here, Brandon realized that adding
three strips would be too many, and that he could create an additional unit
of ten from squares of both the visible and screened collections. Thus, he
seemed to engage in part-whole reasoning that involved the coordination
of units of ten and one. With the possible exception of Lauren, the other
children appeared to be able to give only one interpretation to two-digit

number words when they interpreted these tasks (e.g., sixty-eight is six
tens and eight ones, but not five tens and eighteen ones).
In summary, the interviews indicate that seven of the ten children
could succeed in situations where they could both rely on situation-specific
imagery and could deal with the tens and ones separately. However, all but
two of the ten children were unsuccessful when the task involved men-
tally transforming ten ones into one ten. It would therefore seem that the
place-value numeration concepts developed by eight of the ten American
children were not very flexible. This conclusion is consistent with the anal-
ysis of both the socioculturally-supported learning activities in which they
engaged at home and in school, and patterns of interaction constituted in
the classroom.

Chinese Children in Taiwan

In the first type of task in which they were asked how many rows of 10
beans could be made from bags of beans, all the Chinese children succeeded
on the tasks with 43 and 50 beans and gave reasonable explanations (e.g.,
43 is 4 sets of ten and 3, 10 plus 10 plus 10 plus 10 plus 3 equals 43,
and 50 is 5 units of 10). For the task with 127 beans, Tsia responded, "10
rows, I don't know what to do with 27 beans." Joy produced the answer 19
rows without any explanation. Possibly, he added the 2 and 7 of 127. The
remaining children succeeded in solving this task by reasoning that 127 is
100 plus 27, so there are 10 rows and two rows and seven remaining beans.
Tsia's and Joy's solutions suggest that they did not construct conceptually-
based units often but instead relied on linguistic regularities. This inference
is consistent with the difficulties they had in solving other interview tasks
that involved the coordination of the units of ten and one.
In the second type of task, the children were asked to find how many
squares there were in all when presented with visible and screened collec-
tions of strips and squares. As was the case with the American children, the
Chinese children used both counting-based and mental computation meth-
ods. The counting-based solutions for the task corresponding to 57 + 28 = ?

Joy, Tsia, and Ann counted by tens as they pointed at the visible or the screened
collections (e.g., 60, 70, or 40, 40, 50, 60, 70). Then, they counted visible squares by
ones (71, 72, ... 77) and continued on their fingers (78, 79, 80..... 85).
Su: "28, 30 (pointing at two visible squares). 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 (pointing at the visible
strips). 81, 82, 83, 84, 85 (pointing at the remaining 5 visible squares)."

The remaining six children solved this task by computing mentally:


Pin and Chen: 50 plus 20 equals 70, 70 plus 7 equals 77 plus 3 (8 equals 3 plus 5)
equals 80, 80 plus 5 equals 85.
Duen: 50 plus 20 equals 70, 7 and 8, 7 plus 7 equals 14, plus 1 equals 15, 70 plus 15
equals 85.
Ya, Yun, and Chian: 50 plus 20 equals 70, 7 plus 8 equals 15, 70 plus 15 equals 85.
In c o n t r a s t to the A m e r i c a n children, n o n e o f the C h i n e s e children
a t t e m p t e d to c o u n t - o n b y ones. H o w e v e r , their c o u n t i n g solutions did all
a p p e a r to i n v o l v e visualizing the specific collection o f strips and squares
h i d d e n b y the screen. In addition, the m e n t a l c o m p u t a t i o n s p r o d u c e d b y six
o f the children w e r e similar to those o f the A m e r i c a n children. T h e y s e e m e d
to interpret the visible and s c r e e n e d collections as c o m p o s i t e s o f tens and
ones and then to add the tens and ones as a separate task. A s the children had
not b e e n taught to add two-digit n u m b e r s in school at the time the i n t e r v i e w s
w e r e c o n d u c t e d , o n e m i g h t c o n j e c t u r e that these solutions reflect relatively
s o p h i s t i c a t e d p l a c e value c o n c e p t i o n s . C o n v e r s e l y , it could be argued that
the solutions w e r e b a s e d on n u m b e r w o r d regularities (e.g., f i v e - t e n - s e v e n
plus t w o - t e n - e i g h t ) and i n v o l v e d limited c o n c e p t u a l understanding. T h e
c h i l d r e n ' s solutions to the m i s s i n g a d d e n d task c o r r e s p o n d i n g to 39 + ? = 68
differentiate b e t w e e n these t w o possibilities.
Joy did not try to solve the task.
Pin solved the task by counting on her fingers by ones, kept track of how many times
she counted all ten fingers, and got the correct answer of 29.
Yun, Tsia, Ann, and Su gave 30 as their answer when the researcher asked, "But I
think 39 plus 30 is 69,"
Yun responded, "I don't know how to do it,"
Tsia responded, "Take away 1 (square) from here (the visible squares)."
Ann responded, "Here are 39 squares (visible), move one (from the screened collec-
tion) to here (the visible collection) to make 10, then add two strips over there (from
the screened collection), 30 plus 30 plus 8 equals 68 *** 29 squares."
Su responded, "3 strips, take away one square from here (the screened collection), so
29 squares."
Duen: "68 squares, here are 9 squares (visible). If I add 30 squares, it will be one
more (than 68). I take away 1 square (from 30 squares), and it will be 29.
Chian: If put 30 squares, 30 plus 30 equals 60. Here are 39 squares. It couldn't be 68,
(if I put 30 squares). Therefore, 29 squares here (screened collection).
Chen: 29. Because 9 plus 9 equals 18, put 8 away, so 10 (pointing at strips of visible
collection) 20, 30, 40, (pointing at screened collection) 50, 60, so 29.
Ya: 29. Add 20 (to the 30 of 39) equals 50. Here are 9 squares (visible). (If I) put 9
more, it well be 68, because 9 plus 9 equals 18.
T h e s e solutions indicate that six o f the ten children could c o n c e p t u a l l y
c o o r d i n a t e units o f ten and one in a variety o f w a y s as the need arose.
It w o u l d t h e r e f o r e s e e m that they had c o n s t r u c t e d relatively sophisticated
p l a c e - v a l u e c o n c e p t i o n s and could create n u m e r i c a l p a r t - w h o l e relation-
ships that i n v o l v e d units o f ten and one.

The finding that the Chinese children's numerical conceptions were gener-
ally more sophisticated than those of the American children is consistent
with previous research. It would appear that the learning activities in which
the Chinese students engaged at home and in school better supported their
development of conceptual understanding in arithmetic than did those of
the American children. This conclusion gains credibility when it is recalled
that, in contrast to their American counterparts, the Chinese children were
yet to complete first grade and had not been introduced to the addition and
subtraction of two digit-numbers in school. It should also be noted that
seven of the ten Chinese children were considered by their teacher to be
either average or below average in mathematics. In contrast, the American
teacher considered that the ten children interviewed were her most capable
students in mathematics.


The findings of this investigation indicate that the arithmetical develop-

ment of the American children and Chinese children was enabled and
constrained in different ways by the cultural practices and social processes
that constituted their arithmetic learning contexts. The first influence identi-
fied concerns the socioculturally-supported arithmetical learning activities
in which the two groups of children participated. The Chinese children
engaged in learning activities that appeared to support their construction
of consistent number concepts. For example, they had the opportunity to
become aware of the significance of ten and to begin to construct place
value conceptions when they first encountered numbers in the teens both
at home and in school. In contrast, the American children engaged in
learning activities that seemed to support the construction of two distinct
number concepts. Initially, the American mothers and teachers initiated
learning activities that encouraged the development of unitary, counting-
based conceptions for numbers in the teens and beyond. Learning activ-
ities that involved grouping by tens were not introduced in school until
second grade, and their primary function appeared to be to serve as a pre-
requisite for formal instruction on the standard addition and subtraction
algorithms. The American children were therefore expected to transcend
their accustomed unitary conceptions and to construct multiunit numer-
ical conceptions when they interpreted procedural instructions for using
This comparison of the American and Chinese learning activities indi-
cates that there might be significant cultural differences in the American

and Chinese beliefs about what constitutes natural development when chil-
dren learn arithmetic. The Chinese mothers and teachers acted as though
it was self-evident that numbers are composed of tens and ones when
they interacted with children. The tasks they posed and the questions they
asked reflected the belief that it is normal or natural for children to learn
to conceptualize numbers in this way at a relatively early point in their
arithmetical development. They also considered that this developmental
step was relatively easy and therefore saw no need for formal instruction
on place value. In contrast, the American mothers' and teachers' inter-
actions with children appear to reflect the belief that the construction of
multiunit conceptions is a relatively late development that requires formal
These differences in Chinese and American beliefs about normal devel-
opment in arithmetic suggest that, more generally, normative beliefs about
cognitive development are culturally-specific social constructions that are
reflexively verified in practice. Walkerdine (1988) made a similar point
and also emphasized reflexive nature of these beliefs:
'The child' is an object of pedagogic and psychological discourses. It does not exist and
yet is proved to be real everyday in classrooms and laboratories the world over. (p. 202)
In this process, cognitive development
exists as a regime of truth, a system of classification in which what counts as a properly
developing child may be recognized, and in which certain behaviors are required and
produced ... Thus, everythingin the pedagogyitself necessitates the production, reading,
and evaluationof certain behaviors. (p.205)
The second influence on the children's arithmetical constructions iden-
tified in this study concerns the nature of the social contexts for learning
established in the classroom. The social contexts established by the Chi-
nese classroom community were such that the children had to develop
reasoned explanations in order to be effective. In contrast, the American
children could be effective by memorizing procedural instructions and by
inferring the responses the teacher had in mind on the basis of implicit
cues. Consequently, the possibility that children could appear competent
in the absence of conceptual understanding seemed to be greater in the
American classroom than in the Chinese classroom. Further, the Chinese
children had more opportunities to reflect on their own and others' math-
ematical activity and to become aware of alternative interpretations and
solutions than did the American children. In addition, although both the
Chinese and American teachers acted as mathematical authorities who val-
idated official solution methods, there were more occasions in which the
Chinese children could express their personal interpretations and actively
contribute to the development of the lessons.

The results of the children's interviews are consistent with the claim
that the two aspects of the Chinese children's arithmetical learning contexts
described above better supported their construction of place value numera-
tion concepts than did those of the American children. For example, six of
the ten Chinese first-graders gave explanations which indicated that they
could construct numerical part-whole relationships that involved units of
ten and one. In contrast, only one of the ten American second-graders was
able to do so. It should be acknowledged that this conclusion is based
on interviews conducted with a relatively small number of children. The
findings do, however, gain credibility from the fact that they are very much
in line with the results of previous cross-cultural comparisons of Chinese
and American children's developing conceptual capabilities in arithmetic.
Further, the types of interaction identified in the Chinese classroom are
consistent with those documented in previous studies (Stevenson and Lee,
1990; Stigler and Perry, 1988). In addition, the patterns of interaction
identified in the American classroom are consistent with those report-
ed in previous studies of traditional American instruction (e.g., Cobb et
al., 1992; Mehan, 1979). There is therefore every indication that the two
video-recorded classrooms were reasonably typical.
The findings of this study complement those of prior research that has
focused on general cultural beliefs by identifying beliefs and values that
are specific to the development of particular mathematical concepts, k
should, however, be noted that despite this specificity, the line of argument
developed is general. Future research might therefore investigate whether
there are cultural differences in beliefs about what constitutes normal
development in other areas of mathematics including geometry.
In contrast to this compatibility with prior research on beliefs, the
analysis developed in this paper suggests that arguments concerning the
linguistic advantage provided by the regular structure of Japanese and
Chinese-based number word systems might need to be modified. In effect,
these arguments claim that the Chinese number word system functions as
a superior carrier of meaning from one generation to the next than does the
English number word system (Cobb, 1993). This study has attempted to
go beyond the demonstrated correlation between the structure of cultural
tools and arithmetical competence by investigating the socio-cultural con-
texts within which that competence develops. The findings indicate that
there is also a correlation between the structure of Chinese and English
number word systems, and the extent to which Chinese and American
adults seem to treat multidigit conceptions of number as self-evident when
they engage in joint activities with young children. It is therefore tempting
to conclude that the regular structure of the Chinese number word system

might play some role in supporting Chinese adults' beliefs about children's
normal development. However, even if this proves to be the case, the influ-
ence of the number word regularities on Chinese children's conceptual
development is indirect and is mediated by the culturally-supported learn-
ing activities that adults initiate. As a consequence, the influence of the
number word regularities on Chinese children's developing mathemati-
cal competence is, at best, indirect. Both the culturally-supported learning
activities in which children engage and the local social contexts within
which they construct their arithmetical ways of knowing appear to have
a more immediate and direct influence. Further, it can be observed that
these two influences together account for the superior performance of the
Chinese children in Taiwan both before they enter school and once they
receive school instruction on arithmetic.
Given that the primary focus of this study has been on social and
cultural processes, it is important to acknowledge that mathematical learn-
ing is a process of active individual construction as well as a process of
acculturation. This is readily apparent when the children's responses to
the interview tasks are considered. For example, four of the ten Chinese
children produced counting-based solutions to the strips and squares task
corresponding to 57 + 28 = ? despite the fact that the learning activities
in which they had engaged in the classroom discouraged counting-based
interpretations. Further, one of the American children had developed rela-
tively sophisticated place value conceptions even though there appear to be
potential contradictions in the American learning activities. Both the qual-
itative differences in individual conceptions within each of the two groups
of students, and the differences between the intent of the instruction they
received and the understandings they developed attest to the active, con-
structive nature of their learning. It is in fact for this reason that, throughout
this paper, social and cultural processes have been said to support, enable,
and constrain children's mathematical development, but not to determine


The findings indicate that differences in Chinese and American children's

arithmetical understandings are attributable, in part, to deep-rooted cultural
beliefs that extend beyond the classroom. It would therefore be foolhardy
for American educators to imitate the approach to arithmetic instruction
that is typical in Taiwan. Nonetheless, two general recommendations can
be made.

First, the analysis of interactions in the Chinese classroom indicates

the value of encouraging children to develop reasoned explanations of
their arithmetical thinking. Stigler et al. (1992) arrived at a similar con-
clusion after completing a cross-cultural comparison of elementary school
mathematics instruction in Japan and the United States. Further, this rec-
ommendation is very much in line with the emphasis that the National
Council of Teachers of Mathematics (1989, 1991) place on communica-
tion and reasoning. Its realization requires that teachers initiate and guide
the renegotiation of classroom social norms, thereby influencing their stu-
dents' beliefs about their own role, the teacher's role, and the general nature
of mathematical activity in school.
Second, the Chinese students' arithmetical conceptions were gener-
ally more advanced than those of the American children even though
place value was not explicitly taught as a separate topic. Instead, the Chi-
nese children had opportunities to construct numerical relationships that
involved ten when they engaged in a variety of learning activities includ-
ing those that focused on computation. As a consequence, the notion that
numbers are composed of units of ten and one gradually emerged as an
established mathematical truth in the Chinese classroom. This can be con-
trasted with the emphasis on procedurally-based manipulative experiences
in the American classroom. Within the context of a classroom microcul-
ture characterized by explanation and justification, it might therefore be
fruitful to explore instructional approaches in which the construction of
increasingly sophisticated place-value concepts is treated as an extended
problem-solving process rather than the acquisition of predetermined facts
about numbers. Such an approach would place more emphasis on men-
tal computation and would attempt to transcend the traditional separation
between conceptions and procedures.


The research reported in this paper was supported by the Spencer Foun-
dation. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the


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Department of Teaching and Learning,
Vanderbilt University,
Box 330, Peabody College,
Nashville, TN 37203, U.S.A.

M o T z u - L I N YANG
Home Economics Department,
Pintung Polytechnic Institute,
Republic of China.