Mathematics for Secondary Teaching

Four Components of Discipline Knowledge for a Changing Teacher Workforce

Series:

Kaye Stacey

Mollie MacGregor and Kaye Stacey

Research studies have found that the majority of students up to age 15 seem unable to interpret algebraic letters as generalised numbers or even as specific unknowns. Instead, they ignore the letters, replace them with numerical values, or regard them as shorthand names. The principal explanation given in the literature has been a general link to levels of cognitive development. In this paper we present evidence for specific origins of misinterpretation that have been overlooked in the literature, and which may or may not be associated with cognitive level. These origins are: intuitive assumptions and pragmatic reasoning about a new notation, analogies with familiar symbol systems, interference from new learning in mathematics, and the effects of misleading teaching materials. Recognition of these origins of misunderstanding is necessary for improving the teaching of algebra.