## Concrete to Abstract

Posted by mark schwartz on April 16, 2017

__Introduction__

When presenting operations with signed numbers, an instructor must deal with the issue of notation as well, to allow for the plus and minus having two different meanings; this has to be addressed. I spent a long time playing with this until I found a way for students to ‘see’ the difference. Given a number line which I call a road and a car which they can drive on this number-line-road, the car can be put into drive or reverse, So the __direction of moving__ is with reference to the car. When the car is put on the number-line-road, it can __face__ forward (toward the positive) or back (toward the negative), so the facing is with reference to the number line. Students twiddle with this a little but eventually get it. It seems clear that facing (positive or negative) is different from moving (positive or negative).

I wrote a piece in this blog (Driving the Integer Road), a somewhat long detailed almost lesson plan which describes how all this works but I never present the traditional notation until I’ve gone through a bunch of exercises which I call facing and movement. What’s interesting about it is that students seem to appreciate and understand the differences now between plus and minus in terms of the operation or the sign of the number. Although other instructors may use something like this I haven’t seen it presented anywhere. I’d never seen it in my collection of 1800s texts either … until recently. Here’s how Durell and Robbins, in a very similar way had people walk a number line. They omitted some detailed explanation but I will discuss this.

__The Story__

In Durell and Robbins *1898 School Algebra Complete *(pgs. 20-21) they have the students visualizing walking on a number line. The students don’t actually walk the line but only visualize it. Before this ‘exercise’, the authors point out “ … the signs + and – are employed for two purposes – first, to express positive and negative quantity; and second, to indicate the operations of addition and subtraction.” This prompts the students to pay attention to the notation in a problem. I’m now going to paraphrase what the authors did to show students the relationship between walking on a number line and the traditional +/- notation.

On a number line with A at zero, B at + and C at – , a person walking from A toward B a distance of 5 units and then walking back toward A a distance of 3 units, has in total walked a distance of 2 positive units from A, or zero. In notation, the authors write “+ 5 + (- 3)”, essentially the sum of a positive and negative quantity. They point out that this is symbolically what was done on the number line. They discuss this in terms of positive and negative distance and demonstrate that “Hence, we see that adding negative quantity is the same in effect as subtracting positive quantity; therefore in the expression 5 – 3 the minus sign used may be considered either a sign of the *quantity *of 3, or as a sign of *operation *to be performed on 3.” That’s a very powerful statement and hopefully when instructors used this text, they emphasized this point because what this really does is show that + 5 + (– 3) = +5 (+ 3) = 5 – 3. The authors don’t detail this expression; they just state it … but it can be shown by walking on their number lines

Given that the authors point out “ … the signs + and – are employed for two purpose…” when they wrote the activity as + 5 + (– 3), were consistent with their own schema by designating the – as the sign of the number and the + as the sign of the operation. That’s interesting because the ‘walker’ is facing in the negative direction __with reference to the number line__, while walking forward __with reference to his own movement__ and the authors don’t mention this. Their expression of the walking activity could have been written as + 5 – ( + 3), meaning that the walker walked in a negative direction __with reference to the number line__, while facing in a positive direction __with reference to his own movement.__ This is a subtle difference but consistent with their schema.

Look at the expression + 5 – (+ 3). With the ‘walker’ starting at A and taking 5 steps toward B, this is +5. __If the walker does not change the direction he’s facing__, then he could – __with reference to his own movement__ – step __backwards__ 3 units. This is the operation and thus the – outside the parentheses. So, facing forward __with reference to the number line__ is the sign of the number, thus +3.

“With reference to” becomes a critical phrase in parsing one’s way through this demonstration of what the authors have done. Perhaps it’s too subtle for a class discussion but from my experience, this subtlety seems to make an appearance when students talked about the fuzziness in all the operations with signed numbers.

In summary, Durell and Robbins in 1898 captured the core elements of my “Driving the Integer Road” but didn’t explore the subtleties of the notation when talking about the sign of the number and the sign of the operation. I would urge instructors to explore ways of making concrete the ‘abstract’ use of – and + for this as well as other math relationships.

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