Mar 012012

In many history texts, algebra is considered to have three stages in its historical development:

  1. The rhetorical stage –  the stage where are all statements and arguments are made in words and sentences
  2. The syncopated stage – the stage where some abbreviations are used when dealing with algebraic expressions.
  3. The symbolic stage – the stage where there is total symbolization – all numbers, operations, relationships are expressed through a set of easily recognized symbols, and manipulations on the symbols take place according to well-understood rules.

These stages  are reflected in some textbooks and in our own lesson. For example in in pattern-searching activities that we ask our students to express the patterns and relationships observed using words initially. From the students’ statements we can highlight the key words (the quantities and the mathematical relationships) which we shall later ask the students to represent sometimes in diagrams first and then in symbols. I have used this technique many times and it does seem to work. But I have also seen lessons which goes the other way around, starting from the symbolic stage!

Apart from the three stages, another way of looking at algebra is as proposed by Victor Katz in his paper Stages in the History of Algebra and some Implications for Teaching. Katz argued that besides these three stages of expressing algebraic ideas, there are four conceptual stages that have happened along side of these changes in expressions. These conceptual stages are

  1. The geometric stage, where most of the concepts of algebra are geometric;
  2. The static equation-solving stage, where the goal is to find numbers satisfying certain relationships;
  3. The dynamic function stage, where motion seems to be an underlying idea; and finally
  4. The abstract stage, where structure is the goal.

Katz made it clear that naturally, neither these stages nor the earlier three are disjoint from one another and that there is always some overlap. These four stages are of course about the evolution of algebra but I think it can also be used as framework for designing instruction. For example in Visual representations of the difference of two squares, I started with geometric representations. Using the stages as framework, the next lesson should be about giving numerical value to the area so that students can generate values for x and y. Depending on your topic you can stretch the lesson to teach about functional relationship between x and y and then focus on the structure of the expression of the difference of two squares.

I always like teaching algebra using geometry as context so geometric stage should be first indeed. But I think Katz stages 2 and 3 can be switched depending on the topic. The abstraction part of course should always be last.

You may want to read Should historical evolution of math concepts inform teaching? In that post I cited some studies that supports the approach of taking into consideration the evolution of the concept in designing instruction.

For your reading leisure – Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra.

For serious reading Classical Algebra: Its Nature, Origins, and Uses and of course Victor Katz book History of Mathematics: Brief Version.


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