Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Algebraic Roots – Part 2

What does it mean to “do algebra”? In Part 1, published here last month, I described how algebra (from the Arabic al-Jabr) began in 9th Century Baghdad as a way to approach arithmetical problems in a systematic way that scales. It was a way of thinking, using logical reasoning rather than (strictly speaking, in addition to) arithmetical calculation, and the first textbook on the subject explained how to solve problems that way using ordinary language, not symbolic expressions. Symbolic algebra was introduced later, in 16th Century France.

Just as the formal algorithms of Hindu-Arabic arithmetic make it possible to do arithmetic in a purely procedural, rule-following way (without the need for any thought), so too symbolic algebra made it possible to solve algebraic problems by manipulating symbolic expressions using formal rules, again without the need for any thought.

Over the ensuing centuries, schools focused more and more exclusively on the formal, procedural rules of arithmetic and symbolic algebra, driven in part by the needs of industry and commerce to have large numbers of people who could carry out computations for them, and in part for the convenience of the school system.

Today, however, we have digital devices that carry out arithmetical and algebraic procedural calculations for us, faster and with greater accuracy, shifting society’s needs back to arithmetical and algebraic thinking. This is why you see the frequent use of those terms in educational circles these days, along with number sense. (All three terms are so common that definitions of each are easily found on the Web by searching on the name, as is also the case for the more general term mathematical thinking.)

As more (and hopefully better) technological aids are developed, the nature of the activity involved in solving an arithmetical or algebraic problem changes, both for learning and for application. The fluent and effective use of arithmetical calculators, graphing calculators (such as Desmos), spreadsheets, computer algebra systems (such as Mathematica or Maple), and Wolfram Alpha, are now marketable skills and important educational goals. Each of these tools, and others, provides a different representation of numbers, numerical problems, and algebraic problems.

One consequence of this shift that seemed to take an entire generation of parents off guard, is that mastery of the “traditional algorithms” for solving arithmetic and algebraic problems, which were developed to optimize human computations and at the same time create an audit trail, and which used to be the staple of school mathematics instruction, became a much less important educational goal. Instead, it is evidently far more valuable for today’s students to spend their time working with algorithms optimized to develop good arithmetical and algebraic thinking skills, that will (among other things) support fluent and effective use of the new technologies.

I said “evidently” above, since to those of us in the education business, it was just that. With hindsight, however, it seems clear that in rolling out the Common Core State Standards, those in charge should have put much more effort into providing that important background context that was evident to them but, clearly, not evident to many people not working in mathematics education.

I was not involved in the CCSS initiative, by the way, but I doubt I would have done any better. I still find it hard to wrap my mind round the fact that the “evident” (to me) need to modify mathematics education to today’s world is actually not at all evident to many of my fellow citizens—even though we all live and work in the same digital world. I guess it is a matter of the educational perspective those of us in the math ed business bring to the issues.

But even those of us in the education business can sometimes overlook just how much, and how fast, things have changed. The most recent example comes from a highly respected learning research center, LearnLab in Pittsburgh (formerly called the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center), funded by the National Science Foundation.

The tweet shown below caught my eye a few weeks ago.

The tweet got my attention because I am familiar with DragonBox, and include it in the (very small) category of math learning apps I usually recommend. (I also know the creator, and have given occasional voluntary feedback on their development work, but I have no other connection to the company.)

“Ineffective”? “#dragonboxfail”? Those are the words used in the tweet. But neither can possibly be true. DragonBox provides an alternative representation for linear equations in one unknown. Anyone who completes the game (for want of a better term) has demonstrated mastery of algebraic thinking for single variable linear problems. Period. (There is a separate issue of the representation that I will come to later.)

Indeed, since the mechanics in DragonBox are essentially isomorphic to the rules of classical symbolic algebra (as taught in schools for the last four hundred years), completing the game demonstrates mastery of those mechanics too. From a logical perspective then, the tweet made no sense. All very odd for an official tweet from a respected, federally-funded research institute. Suspecting what must be going on, I looked further.

The tweet was in response to a review of DragonBox, published by EdSurge. I recognized the name of the reviewer, Brady Fukumoto, a former game developer I had meet a few times. It was a well analyzed review. Overall, I agreed with everything Brady said. In particular, he spent some time comparing “doing algebra in the DragonBox representation” to “doing algebra using the traditional symbolic equations representation”, pointing out how much richer is the latter—but noting too that the former can result in higher levels of student engagement. Hardly the “promote” of a product that LearnLab accused him of. Indeed, Brady correctly summarized, and referenced (with a link) the Carnegie Mellon University study the LearnLab tweet implicitly referred to.

I recommend you read Brady’s review. It gets at many aspects of the “what does it mean to do algebra?” issue. As does playing DragonBox itself, which toward the end gradually replaces its initial “game representation” with the standard symbolic equation representation on a touch screen (a process often referred to as deconcretization).

Unlike the tweet, the CMU paper was careful in stating its conclusion. The authors say, and Brady quotes, that they found DragonBox to be “ineffective in helping students acquire skills in solving algebra equations, as measured by a typical test of equation solving.” (The emphasis is mine.)

Now we are at the root of that odd tweet. (One should not make too much of a tweet, of course. Twitter is an instant medium. But, rightly or wrongly, tweets in the name of an organization or a public figure are generally viewed as PR, presenting an authoritative, public stance.) The folks at LearnLab, their knowledge of educational technology notwithstanding, are assuming a perspective in which one particular representation of algebra is privileged; namely, the traditional symbolic one. (Which is the representation they adopt in developing their own algebra instruction app, an Intelligent Tutoring System called Lynnette.) But as I pointed out last month, that representation became the dominant one entirely by virtue of what was at that time the best available distribution technology: the printing press.

With newer technologies, in particular the tablet computer (“printed paper on steroids”), other representations are possible, some better suited to learning, others to applications. To be sure, there are learning benefits to be gained from mastering symbolic algebra, perhaps even from doing so using paper-and-pencil, as Brady points out in his review. But at this stage in the representational technology development, we should adopt a perspective of all bets being off when it comes to how to best represent algebra in different contexts. I think it highly unlikely that we will ever again view algebra as something you learn or do exclusively by using a pen to pour symbols onto a page.

Indeed, with his background in video game design, Brady ends his review by rating DragonBox according to three metrics:

Fun Factor – A: I collected all 1,366 stars available in DragonBox 1 and 2 and had a great time.

Academic Value – B: I worry that many will underestimate the effort needed to transfer DragonBox skills to practical algebra proficiency.

Educational Value – A+: Anytime a kid leaves a game with thoughts like, “algebra is fun!” or “hey, I’m really good at math!” that is a huge win.

The LearnLab researchers are locked into the second perspective: what he calls Academic Value. (So too is Brady, to some extent, with his use of the phrase “practical algebra proficiency” to mean “symbolic algebra proficiency.”)

Make no mistake about it, transfer from mastery in an interactive engagement on a tablet to paper-and-pencil math is not automatic, as both Brady and the CMU researchers observe. To modify the old horse aphorism, DragonBox takes its players right to the water’s edge and dips their feet in, but still the players have difficulty drinking. (My best guess is that, for most learners it takes a good teacher to facilitate transfer.)

I note in passing that initially I had difficulty playing DragonBox. My problem was, classical, symbolic algebra is a second language to me that I have been fluent in since childhood and use every day. I found it difficult mastering the corresponding actions in DragonBox. Transfer is difficult in both directions.

At the present moment in time, those of us in education (or learning research) should absolutely not assume any one representation is privileged. Particularly so when it comes to learning. In that respect, Brady is right to note that DragonBox’s success in terms of his third metric (essentially, attitude and engagement) is indeed “a huge win.”

In the world in which our students will live their lives, arithmetic, algebra, and many other parts of mathematics, should be learned, and will surely be applied, in multimedia environments. All the evidence available today suggests that mastery of the traditional symbolic representation will be a crucial ingredient in becoming proficient at arithmetic and algebra. But the more effective practitioners are likely to operate with the aid of various technological tools. Indeed, for some future practitioners, mastery of the traditional symbolic representation (which is, remember, just a user interface to a certain kind of thinking) may turn out to be primarily just a key step in the cognitive process of achieving conceptual understanding, not used directly in applications, which may all be by way of mathematical reasoning tools.

Exactly when, in the initial learning process, it is best to introduce the classical symbolic representation is as yet unclear. What the evidence of countless generations of students-turned-parents makes abundantly clear, however, is that teaching only the classical symbolic approach is a miserable failure. That much is affirmed every time a parent posts on social media that they are unable to understand a Common Core math question that requires nothing more than understanding the place-value representation of integers. (Which is true of most of the ones I have seen posted.)

There is some evidence (see for example Jo Boaler’s new book) that a more productive approach is to use learning technologies to develop and sustain student engagement and develop a growth mindset, and provide learning environments for safe, productive failure, with the goal of developing number sense and general forms of creative problem solving (mathematical thinking), bringing in symbolic representations and specific techniques as and when required.

**Full declaration: I should note that my own work in this area, some of it through my startup company BrainQuake, adopts this philosophy. The significant learning gains obtained with our first app were in number sense and creative problem solving for a novel, complex performance task. Acquisition of traditional “basic skills” with our app comes about (intentionally, by design) as a valuable by-product. The improvement we see in the basic skills category is much more modest, and may well be better achieved by a tool such as LearnLab’s ITS. In a world where we have multiple representations, it is wise to make effective use of them all, according to context. It is not a case of an interface “fail”; to say that (with or without a hashtag) is to remain locked in past thinking. Easy to do, even for experts. Rather, in an era when algebra is being forced to return to its roots of being a way of thinking to help us solve practical problems, using all available representations in unison can provide us with a major win.