Math Knowledge for Teaching Addition

By | May 12, 2012

This post is the second in the series of post about the Math Knowledge for Teaching (MKT) where I present task/lesson that teachers and interested readers of this blog can discuss. The first is about Tangents to Curves, a Year 12 lesson. This second post is for young learners.

The task

How many small cubes make up this shape?


This is a pretty simple task.  Any Grade 1 pupil will have no difficulty giving the correct answer. All they need to do is to count the cubes. Yesterday, in one my workshop with teachers about lesson study, we viewed a Japanese lesson using the same task but was used in such away that children will learn not just counting.

The lesson

Before this lesson the class already learned that putting together concept and the symbol + and =.

The pupils were given small cubes to play with on their tables. After a minute, the 2x2x2 cube was shown on the TV screen and the teacher asked the class to predict how many small cubes make-up the shape. Some used their cubes to make a similar shape without the teacher encouragement to do so. The cubes were only there to help those who might have trouble imagining the bigger cube were some parts are not shown. The pupils counted the visible cubes one-by-one and then those not seen in the drawing (a drawing of the cube is posted on the board). But, the teacher was not just after the answer 8, he was after the learners’ counting strategy. So he asked: Can you use the + sign to show us your counting strategy? Some of the students answers were: 4+4 = 8, 2+2+2+2 = 8, 6+1+1=8. But, the teacher was not only after this, he wanted the class to realize that this number expressions may have come from a different way of looking at the cube. He started with those who wrote 4+4 to show the class how this counting was done. There were two different strategies: halving the cube vertically and the other horizontally which the students demonstrated using the cubes. All throughout the teacher was asking the class, “Can you follow the thinking? “Do you have a different idea?” “Who has another idea?”

After the summarizing the different ideas of the pupils in the first task, the teacher gave the second task:

What is your idea for counting the small cubes in this shape? Show your idea in numbers and symbols.


The shape was projected on the TV screen as the teacher rotated the shapes. The pupils came-up with different combinations of visible and not visible cubes like 7+3 = 10, 4+6 = 10, etc. They were invited to explain these expressions and their thinking using the drawing on the board. The teacher did not have any difficulty getting the answer he wanted from the pupils: “We already know that this shape (the big cube) is 8 so we just add 2  (8+2 = 10).

Questions for Teachers Discussion/Reflection:
  1. What about numbers will the pupils learn in the lesson?
  2. What is the role of technology and visuals in this lesson?
  3. What about mathematics is given emphasis in the lesson?
  4. What mathematics teaching and learning principles underpin the design of the lesson?

Remember this quote from George Polya: What the teacher says in the classroom is not unimportant, but what the students think is a thousand times more important.

math knowledge

For further reading:

Engaging Young Children in Mathematics: Standards for Early Childhood Mathematics Education (Studies in Mathematical Thinking and Learning Series)

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One thought on “Math Knowledge for Teaching Addition

  1. Peter Price

    Erlina, I love reading stories of expert teachers engaging young students in mathematical thinking; thank you for this post.

    All throughout the teacher was asking the class, ‘Can you follow the thinking?’ ‘Do you have a different idea?’ ‘Who has another idea?’

    The Japanese teacher did such a great job of focussing young students’ minds on the math that they could find in the question, and then building on it. Wonderful!


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