Computational Thinking and Algebraic Expressions

I am still reviewing algebra concepts in my Math 9 course with students. The whole unit is all about algebraic operations, but my students have seen this material at least once, in some cases two years running.

Not long ago, I made the assertion that the most harmful part of introducing students to the world of real-world algebra looks like this:

Let x = the number of ________

Why is this so harmful?

For practiced mathematicians, math teachers, and students that have endured school math for long enough, there are a couple steps that actually happen internally before this step of defining variables. Establishing a context for the numbers and the operations that link them together are the most important part of producing a correct mathematical model for a given situation. A level of intuition and experience is necessary if one is going to successfully skip straight to this step, and most students don't have this intuition or experience.

We have to start with the concrete because most people (including our students) start their thinking in concrete terms. This is the reason I have raved previously about the CME Project and the effectiveness of using their guess-check-generalize concept in introducing word problems to students. It forms an effective bridge between the numbers that students understand and the abstract concept of a variable. It encourages experimentation and analysis of whether a given answer matches the constraints of a problem.

This method, however, screams for computers to take care of the arithmetic so that students can focus on manipulating the variables involved. Almost all of the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice point toward this being an important focus for our work with students. I haven't had a great point in my curriculum since I really started getting into computational thinking to try out my ideas from the beginning, but today gave me a chance to do just that.

Here's how I introduced students to what I wanted them to do:

I then had them open up this spreadsheet and actually complete the missing elements of the spreadsheet on their own. Some students had learned to do similar tasks in a technology class, but some had not.
02 - SPR - Translating Algebraic Expressions

Screen Shot 2013-09-06 at 3.59.38 PM

The students that needed to have conversations about tricky concepts like three less than a number had them with me and with other students when they came up. Students that didn't quickly moved through the first set. I'd go and throw some different numbers for 'a number' and see that they were all changing as expected. Then we moved to a more abstract task:

It's great to see that you know how to use different operations on the number in that cell. Now let's generalize. Pick a variable you like - x, or N, or W - it doesn't matter. What would each of these cells become then? Write those results together with the words in your notebook and show me when you're done.

The ease with which students moved to this next task was much greater than it has ever been for me in past lessons. We also had some really great conversations about x*2 compared with 2x, and the fact that both are correct from an arithmetic standpoint, but one is more 'traditional' than the other.

Once students got to this point, I pushed them toward a slightly higher level task that still began concrete. This is the second sheet from the spreadsheet above:
Screen Shot 2013-09-06 at 4.06.07 PM

Here we had multiple variables going at once, but this was not a stretch for most students. The key that I needed to emphasize here for some students was that the red text was all calculated. I wanted to put information in the black boxes with black text only, and have the spreadsheet calculate the red values. This required students to identify what the relationship between the variables needed to be to obtain the answer they knew in their head had to be true. This is CCSS MP2, almost verbatim.

This is all solidifying into a coherent framework of using spreadsheet and programming tools to reinforce algebra instruction from the start. There's still plenty to figure out, but this is a start. I'll share what I come up with along the way.

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