algebraic tools allow highly complex problems to be solved and displayed in a way that provides a powerful image of change over time.
Many students would be more than a little surprised at this description. Few students view algebra as a powerful toolkit that allows them to solve complex problems much more easily. Rather, they regard the algebra itself as the problem, and the toolkit as hopelessly complex. This result is not surprising given that algebra is often taught in ways that violate all three principles of learning set forth in How People Learn and highlighted in this volume.
The first principle suggests the importance of building new knowledge on the foundation of students’ existing knowledge and understanding. Because students have many encounters with functional relationships in their everyday lives, they bring a great deal of relevant knowledge to the classroom. That knowledge can help students reason carefully through algebra problems. Box 8-1 suggests that a problem described in its everyday manifestation can be solved by many more students than the same problem presented only as a mathematical equation. Yet if the existing mathematics understandings students bring to the classroom are not linked to formal algebra learning, they will not be available to support new learning.
The second principle of How People Learn argues that students need a strong conceptual understanding of function as well as procedural fluency. The new and very central concept introduced with functions is that of a dependent relationship: the value of one thing depends on, is determined by, or is a function of another. The kinds of problems we are dealing with no longer are focused on determining a specific value (the cost of 5 gallons of gas). They are now focused on the rule or expression that tells us how one thing (cost) is related to another (amount of gas). A “function” is formally defined in mathematics as “a set of ordered pairs of numbers (x, y) such that to each value of the first variable (x) there corresponds a unique value of the second variable (y).”2 Such a definition, while true, does not signal to students that they are beginning to learn about a new class of problems in which the value of one thing is determined by the value of another, and the rule that tells them how they are related.
Within mathematics education, function has come to have a broader interpretation that refers not only to the formal definition, but also to the multiple ways in which functions can be written and described.3 Common ways of describing functions include tables, graphs, algebraic symbols, words, and problem situations. Each of these representations describes how the value of one variable is determined by the value of another. For instance, in a verbal problem situation such as “you get two dollars for every kilometer you walk in a walkathon,” the dollars earned depend on, are determined by, or are a function of the distance walked. Conceptually, students need to understand that these are different ways of describing the same relationship.