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Adding + It Up: Helping Children Learn Mathematics
So there is some evidence that understanding is the basis for developing procedural fluency.51
A third observation is that proficiency with multidigit computation is more heavily influenced by instruction than single-digit computation is. Many features of multidigit procedures (e.g., the base-10 elements and how they are represented by place-value notation) are not part of children’s everyday experience and need to be learned in the classroom. In fact, many students are likely to need help learning efficient forms of multidigit procedures. This means that students in different classrooms and receiving different instruction might follow different learning progressions use different procedures.52 For single-digit addition and subtraction, the same learning progression occurs for many children in many countries regardless of the nature and extent of instruction.53 But multidigit procedures, even those for addition and subtraction, depend much more on what is taught.
A fourth observation is that children can and do devise or invent algorithms for carrying out multidigit computations.54 Opportunities to construct their own procedures provide students with opportunities to make connections between the strands of proficiency. Procedural fluency is built directly on their understanding. The invention itself is a kind of problem solving, and they must use reasoning to justify their invented procedure. Students who have invented their own correct procedures also approach mathematics with confidence rather than fear and hesitation.55 Students invent many different computational procedures for solving problems with large numbers. For addition, they eventually develop a procedure that is consistent with the thinking that is used with standard algorithms. That thinking enables them to make sense of the algorithm as a record on paper of what they have already been thinking. For subtraction, many students can develop adding-up procedures and, if using concrete materials like base-10 blocks, can also develop ways of thinking that parallel algorithms usually taught today.56 Some students need help to develop efficient algorithms, however, especially for multiplication and division. Consequently, for these students the process of learning algorithms involves listening to someone else explain an algorithm and trying it out, all the while trying to make sense of it. Research suggests that students are capable of listening to their peers and to the teacher and of making sense of an algorithm if it is explained and if the students have diagrams or concrete materials that support their understanding of the quantities involved.57
Fifth, research has shown that students can learn well from a variety of different instructional approaches, including those that use physical materials to represent hundreds, tens, and ones, those that emphasize special counting