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# A Perspective on Arithmetic

ven though the mathematics curriculum has expanded far beyond arithmetic, the content area of number and operations remains central to elementary mathematics and receives the greatest emphasis in elementary mathematics instruction. Standard 1 in NCTMs Principles and Standards (2000) addresses the importance of giving attention to this area of the elementary mathematics curriculum area: In these Standards, understanding number and operations, developing number sense, and gaining uency in arithmetic computation form the core of mathematics education for the elementary grades (32). Arithmetic instruction has traditionally focused on developing students prociency with paper-and-pencil computation. Implied, however, in the renaming to number and operations, is a call for a broader view of arithmetic instruction. Computation is still important, of course, and students must learn how to compute accurately and efciently. But instruction must also help students learn to apply computational skills to problem-solving situations. When facing problems that call for numerical calculations, students need to know how to choose the operations needed, decide on the numbers to use, do the necessary calculations, and then appropriately interpret the results. Also, arithmetic instruction must help students develop number sense so that they are able to make reasonable estimates, think and reason exibly with numbers, make sound numerical judgments, and see numbers as useful. Computation, problem solving, and number sense are essential aspects of instruction that addresses the content standard of number and operations. In order to examine instructional decisions, its helpful to consider the role of arithmetic in real-life situations. When teachers are asked to list occasions outside of their classroom when they use arithmeticthat is, when they have to add, subtract, multiply, and/or dividemost responses include the following types of situations: when I calculate my checkbook balance, when Im in the supermarket guring how much Im spending or doing price comparisons, when I need to know how much wallpaper or oor covering I need, when Im deciding on the tip in a restaurant, when I want to know the mileage Im getting on my car, when Im guring how long a roast or turkey needs to cook, when Im deciding what time to leave to arrive at the movies on time. When they review their list to see how they typically do the arithmetic required, teachers report that they most often either use a calculator or gure mentally; relying on paper and pencil is less common. When teachers evaluate their lists to decide when being accurate is necessary and when an estimate does ne, or is even more appropriate, teachers generally nd a fty-fty split between the two. Complete the questionnaire that follows to analyze your own use of arithmetic.

At the same time, teachers admit to spending the bulk of their instructional time for number and operations on paper-and-pencil drill, with students practicing arithmetic skills in isolation from problem-solving situations. The arithmetic exercises are usually provided on worksheets or textbook pages, neatly arranged and ready for children to apply computation procedures for guring answers. Yet in all of the real-life needs for arithmetic, problems do not present themselves ready for calculation. Deciding what to do is the important rst step before doing any calculation.

1. List all the situations outside of school responsibilities during the past month for which youve used arithmeticthat is, youve had to add, subtract, multiply, and/or divide.

2. There are three methods people generally use when doing arithmetic: (1) calculator, (2) paper and pencil, or (3) mental arithmetic. Number each item on your list to indicate the method you usually use in that situation. Which method do you use most often? Least often? 3. Review your list once more and mark each item with estimate or accurate to show which is usually required for that situation. What percentage of your items did you mark estimate? Accurate?

Learning to do paper-and-pencil arithmetic on isolated examples does not ensure that children will truly understand the algorithms or develop the ability to use them when needed. This fact is obvious to teachers when they assign addition practice and a student asks, Do I have to carry on this page? Its obvious when they assign word problems and a student asks, Do I need to add or subtract? Its clear when a child makes a division

Part 1

## Raising the Issues

error, omitting a zero in the quotient so the answer is ten times too small, and the student doesnt even notice. All of these examples indicate students lack of understanding and are substantiated by research ndings. This does not mean that children do not need to learn arithmetic. Doing arithmetic mentally demands mastery of basic facts along with the ability to estimate. Using a calculator successfully requires understanding of the arithmetic processes called for in a variety of situations. It is inappropriate when teaching arithmetic to focus on computation in isolation from the problem situations that require those skills. Can students determine whether its cheaper to buy things two for a nickel or three for a dime? Can they name a fraction that is larger than onethird yet smaller than one-half? Can they gure out what to do when halving a recipe that calls for 3 cup of sugar? (What would you do?) Merely learning 4 paper-and-pencil arithmetic algorithms is not sufcient preparation for solving problems that demand reasoning ability, not just computation ability. Arithmetic instruction must be accompanied by instruction in problem solving and number sense.

A Perspective on Arithmetic

## Examining Childrens Common Arithmetic Errors

xamining the errors children make when practicing arithmetic can provide additional insights into their thinking and our instructional problems. For each of the arithmetic exercises below, purposely record incorrect answers that reect errors that youve seen students commonly make.

1. 3 3. 42 17

2.

35 67 300 136

4.

## 5. 12 3840 7. 2.06 1.3 0.38

6.

2 1 + = 2 3 8. \$5.40 0.15

With the exception of errors that result from carelessness with basic facts, the errors that students make are not random. They are remarkably consistent. Teachers see the same mistakes over and over, year after year. In most instances, childrens errors are rule bound, the result of applying an incorrect procedure in place of a correct algorithm. This incorrect procedure, however, may have some logic for the child, even though that logic is incorrect. Often, the child has been taught the rule by a teacher but applies the rule in an inappropriate situation. The following errors and explanations describe the kinds of incorrect thinking children typically apply.
1. 3 7
A plus sign means to add. Add the numbers in each column and write the sums under the line. When you subtract, you take the smaller number from the larger. You cant subtract a number from zero, so you change the zeros into nines.

2.

35 67
42 17

3.

4.

300 136

10

or

or You cant subtract from zero, so you borrow from the three and the zeros become tens.

300 136

5.
6.
1 2

12 3840
2 3

## You can drop the zero at the end of the problem.

When you add fractions, you add across the top and across the bottom.
Line up the numbers and add.

7.

8.

\$5.40 0.15

After you gure the problem, bring down the decimal point.

Its valuable to think about possible causes for these examples of erroneous reasoning. When learning arithmetic processes, children focus on the symbols and tend to see arithmetic as doing something to those symbols to get the right answers. They typically learn that a plus sign means to add, but a problem like 3 7 calls for guring how many more, not nding a sum. The same children who incorrectly put 10 in the box in the rst example most likely know that 3 10 is not equal to 7. When tackling a missingaddend problem, children who make the common error are not focusing on the meaning of the problem but on the symbols in the example. However, the error doesnt typically occur when children think about the same numerical problem set in a context: You have three birthday candles, but you need ten altogether. How many more birthday candles do you need? When given this problem, children generally interpret the situation and correctly gure how many birthday candles they need; they dont make the error they commonly do when dealing with the same problem presented only numerically. The implication from the examples of arithmetic errors is that children rely on recipes rather than reasoning. Following recipes results from learning arithmetic as a collection of specic methods used to arrive at answers, rather than thinking about what makes sense. Many teachers express concern when students come to class and want to know if they can do the division using the method someone at home showed them. (What would you do in that situation?) Its not uncommon for a teacher to respond that children must learn to do it the way the book says. The implication is that the specic algorithm is important, not that children should understand that different algorithms are possible and they should make sense of whatever method they use. Examining Childrens Common Arithmetic Errors

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When making errors, children rarely notice or even seem to care when they arrive at an absurd answer. Though teachers urge children to estimate or check their answers, generally children are concerned primarily with nishing. Their goal seems to be to get the problem or page done, not to evaluate their answers. They gure 15 percent of \$5.40, produce a result of \$81.00 (as shown on the previous page), and accept the answer without question, even though \$81.00 is fteen times greater than \$5.40. The problem springs from an educational issue larger than mathematics instruction. If children believe that getting quick, right answers is what is valued in school, then this response is an obvious result. Instruction should aim not toward an answer-oriented curriculum but toward one that values reasoning processes and calls for evaluating answers as an essential part of any assignment. Not only is the mastery of algorithms presented as the most important goal in elementary mathematics instruction, but the algorithms taught are often presented as if they are the only way to perform a calculation. In this light, the following exercise is revealing:

Mentally double 38. Then analyze the method you used in order to arrive at the answer. When teachers are asked to double thirty-eight mentally and then describe how they accomplished this, methods vary. Some visualize the problem symbolically and perform the algorithm mentally, seeing two 38s lined up on their mental chalkboards, adding the 8s, carrying the 1, and so on. Some use this approach, but mentally multiply thirty-eight by two instead of adding. Some add the thirty and thirty-rst and then add on sixteen. (And we know that children are discouraged from ever adding the numbers in the tens place before those in the ones place.) Some double forty and subtract four. Some double thirty-ve and then add six. Invariably, such a range of methods is offered. Why, in school, is the implication that there is one right way to do arithmetic? And why is the symbolic method used to produce arithmetic results so often separated from the meaning in the situation?

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Part 1

## Using Word Problems to Develop Arithmetic Understanding

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Dealing in Horses
A man bought a horse for \$50 and sold it for \$60. He then bought the horse back for \$70 and sold it again for \$80. What do you think was the nancial outcome of these transactions? Lost \$20 Lost \$10 Came out even Other (describe) Explain your reasoning: Earned \$10 Earned \$20 Earned \$30

Facility with computation does not ensure childrens ability to know when to use those skills in problem situations. Problem situations should be the starting place for developing understanding of each of the four basic operations of arithmeticaddition, subtraction, multiplication, and divisionthereby establishing the need and context for computation skills. Children need to see that learning to compute serves a purposefor solving problems. Too often, the message is reversed, and children see word problems as a way of providing computation practice, and a mysterious way at that. This suggestion does not mean that teachers should begin arithmetic instruction by assigning the word problems in the textbook. Assigning word problems accomplishes no more than testing students abilities to solve those problems. Its teaching that is needed, not testing. Teachers should present word problems for children to discuss and nd solutions to, without the distraction of numerical symbols. This needs to be done frequently, several times a week throughout the entire year, at all grade levels. The goal is for the children to generalize for themselvesfrom many, many experienceshow the arithmetic operations are described in the language of the real world. Also, students should be encouraged to gure their own ways to arrive at solutions and make sense of situations numerically. A caution: Teachers often resort to helping children solve textbook problems by providing word cues: when it says altogether, you are supposed to add; how many more means to subtract. Teachers provide these cues to help children be more successful with word problems. However, instruction of this type does little more than offer children tricks to nd answers. Even worse, the implication is that getting the answer is most important

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Part 1

## Raising the Issues

and that relying on tricks is an effective strategy for nding those answers. This message often results in children looking for tricks, rather than trying to make sense out of problems.

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## Beyond Word Problems

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curiosity, and allow them to use, in a safe and supportive environment, the skills theyll need later. The following exercise provides a classroom application for these ideas:

## What Is and Is Not a Problem?

What is the denition of a problem? A problem is a situation in which a person is seeking some goal and for which a suitable course of action is not immediately apparent. In the context of the mathematics curriculum, a problem is a situation requiring that mathematical skills, concepts, or processes be used to arrive at the goal. Whether a situation is a problem is an individual matter, depending on an individuals reaction or relationship to that situation. The individual must understand the situation and be interested in resolving it, yet there must be Beyond Word Problems

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some block preventing immediate resolution. If these conditions do not exist, then a situation is not a problem for that individual. What may be a problem for one student may not be a problem for another. Analyzing the denition produces four criteria that dene mathematical problems for students: Criteria for Mathematical Problems 1. 2. 3. 4. There is a perplexing situation that the student understands. The student is interested in nding a solution. The student is unable to proceed directly toward a solution. The solution requires use of mathematical ideas.

## Refer to these four criteria in answering these questions:

1. Was the Dealing in Horses problem a problem for you? Why or why not? Answer in terms of the four criteria.

2. Was nding the value of your rst name a problem for you? Why or why not?

3. Was nding \$1.00 words a problem for you? Why or why not?

4. Would these be problems for your students? Solving Dealing in Horses: Yes Finding \$1.00 words: Yes Why? No No No Finding the value of your rst name: Yes

Do not confuse arithmetic exercises with problems. If a student meets a situation that calls for two-place multiplication and has not been taught an algorithm for this process, then this might be a problem for that student. Generally though, arithmetic exercises are used to provide students practice with using standard mathematical procedures. Although a child may have

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Part 1

## Raising the Issues

difculty arriving at a correct arithmetic answer, deciding on the method for getting the answer is not usually part of the childs task. Executing specic proceduresthe algorithmsis the childs task. Textbooks often present word problems so that all those on the same page are solved with the same operation. The rst one on the page may be a problem for a student. But if the student realizes that the same procedure can be used for all the others (and students are quick to notice this), the rest are not problems. They are merely exercises that do not require thinking or reasoning but rather repetitive application of the same algorithms. Problem-solving situations, on the other hand, each demand that the child develop a plan for solution as well as execute the plan. Problem-solving techniques do exist, but they are general approaches, not algorithms that can be routinely applied to specic problems. Although arithmetic is essential for solving many problems in life, it is not the only mathematical skill generally needed. Figuring how much oor covering is needed for a room requires applying both geometry and measurement skills. Deciding on the best place to put savings involves ideas in the areas of probability and statistics. Assembling a bicycle that arrives in a crate calls for the application of logical thinking skills. At each of the grade levels, mathematics instruction should provide children problem-solving experiences in all of the content areas of the elementary math curriculum. While the content areas are organized differently in state and district frameworks, they generally include number and operations; measurement; probability and statistics; geometry; patterns, functions, and algebra; and logical reasoning. Although arithmetic is primarily part of number and operations, arithmetic skills are needed to understand ideas and to solve problems in each of the other areas as well.

Problem-Solving Strategies
Students benet from learning about problem-solving strategies that are useful for analyzing and solving problems. Strategies are not specic to particular problems or to particular areas of the mathematics curriculum but can be applied alone or in combination with other strategies to solve a wide variety of problems. Students use many strategies intuitively when they solve problems. However, gaining familiarity with a collection of strategies by seeing them modeled, and then by trying to apply them, provides students with useful tools for tackling problems and broadens their problem-solving abilities. The following is a list of useful problem-solving strategies. Problem-Solving Strategies Look for a pattern. Construct a table. Beyond Word Problems

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Make an organized list. Act it out. Draw a picture. Use objects. Guess and check. Work backward. Write an equation. Solve a simpler (or similar) problem. Make a model. Its important to discuss with students both the specic strategies they used to solve problems and why those strategies were effective choices. Class discussions are useful because they provide opportunities for students to hear others points of view. Having the list of problem-solving strategies posted in the room is also helpful. That way, when a problem is summarized in class, the list serves as a reference for helping students label their methods. As students become familiar with the various strategies, they can refer to the list as a source for approaches. Usually, its possible to solve a particular problem using different strategies or a combination of strategies. The following exercise focuses on this issue. For each of the three problems provided, decide which strategies are possible or reasonable to use. After making a list of these strategies, choose one or a combination of strategies to try rst in solving each problem. Then solve the problem. Record for each of the problems as indicated.

Problem 1: Show all the ways that fteen objects can be put into four piles so that each pile has a different number of objects in it. Possible or reasonable strategies:

Which strategy or combination of strategies will you try rst to solve the problem?

Solution:

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Part 1

## Raising the Issues

Problem 2: Lisa and David are playing a game. At the end of each round, the loser gives the winner a penny. After a while, David has won three games, and Lisa has three more pennies than she did when she began. How many rounds did they play? Possible or reasonable strategies:

Which strategy or combination of strategies will you try rst to solve the problem?

## Solution: Did you change strategies or use others as well? Describe.

Problem 3: If you spend \$1.85 and pay with a \$10.00 bill, you get \$8.15 in change. Notice that the digits in your change are the same as the digits in what you spent. There are four other amounts you could spend so that the change has the same digits. Find them. Possible or reasonable strategies:

Which strategy or combination of strategies will you try rst to solve the problem?

Solution:

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## Pros and Cons of Problem Solving

Some teachers think that much of problem solving is too demanding or unrealistic. Several arguments have been raised: There isnt enough time; parents expect us to teach arithmetic; problem solving is too hard for the struggling students who need work in basic skills; I was never very good in math myself and I dont feel comfortable teaching what I dont understand. Its important to examine each of these issues. Argument 1. There isnt enough time.
The reality of classroom instruction is that teaching the basic skills of arithmetic is time-consuming. There is just so much time in the school day and, over the years, more and more curriculum responsibilities have been added. A focus on problem solving is too much to expect and isnt realistic. Besides, the major complaint of secondary math teachers is that the students arent well enough prepared with basic arithmetic skills.

Theres no quarrel with the reality of how difcult and time-consuming teaching is. It has never been easy. But thats no excuse for not taking a serious and critical look at how the math instructional time, no matter how limited, is being spent. Research has shown that spending the bulk of mathematics instructional time to teach arithmetic skills does not prepare students to solve problems. Teachers are well aware of this when they assign even the most rudimentary of word problems and nd that students are unable to solve them. Continuing to emphasize arithmetic in isolation rather than in the context of problem solving makes little sense, especially when this choice is considered in the perspective of what children need to function in our complex world. Argument 2. Parents expect the school to teach arithmetic.
Parents are concerned about their childrens arithmetic skills. They want their children to bring home papers that show the arithmetic work they are doing in school. They dont want another rerun of the new math asco. Parents argue that they learned arithmetic when they were in school without all this fuss about problem solving, and that should be good enough for their children.

Teachers need to explain the full scope of math instructional goals to parents, stated in the context of what children require for success in higher education and in our changing society. The world differs greatly today from when parents were in elementary school; the technological explosion has affected all areas of everyones life. To cling to what was suitable when parents were in school is clinging to nostalgia rather than examining what is

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currently essential. Professional educators have the job of reeducating parents, not just complying with demands that are obsolete. Argument 3. Problem solving is too hard for students who have difculty with the basic skills.
For many students, mastering basic computation requires both more instructional time and more practice. Without this, they are not able to perform arithmetic calculations. Its better for students who learn more slowly to concentrate on the skills rather than attempt to do even more complicated problem solving.

Instead of merely considering how to give struggling students more instructional time for arithmetic, why not examine what is really basic for those students? Skills are tools. The value of a tool is its usefulness. Being able to do paper-and-pencil computation will not serve students without the ability to interpret a problem, analyze what needs to be done, and evaluate the solution. Whats needed is a redenition of what is really basic to mathematics instruction. Argument 4. Some teachers are not very good in math and do not feel comfortable teaching problem solving.
Some teachers studied mathematics only as long as it was a requirement, and for some this means that their last math course was high school geometry. To be afraid of mathematics, to feel inadequate, and even to dislike it are not uncommon reactions from people, professional educators included. All teachers can do arithmetic; not all have that same facility in the other strands of mathematics. Its not fair to expect teachers to teach what they dont understand themselves.

Indeed, there are professional educators who are not comfortable with mathematics. Too often, it is taken for granted that teachers have a rm grasp of the content of grades K12 mathematics when they leave high school. This isnt always the case. Many teachers have taken only two years of high school mathematics, and many who have taken additional courses still have not developed a full understanding of the ideas and relationships in the high school mathematics curriculum. It is a myth that some people do not have a mathematical mind and therefore cannot learn mathematics. All teachers responsible for teaching mathematics face the challenge of introducing children to important mathematics concepts and motivating them to enjoy and appreciate mathematics. Teachers who have never been at all interested in mathematics or who have a limited background in it can continue their learning of mathematics through mathematics courses, conferences, inservice workshops, and other professional development activities.

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