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The development of algebraic thinking in the foundation phase: a comparative study of two different curricula
Afonso, Dominique Gabriala
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The mathematics results in South Africa are alarmingly low, with a number of high school learners unable to compute basic operations. International test results show South Africa consistently ranks low in comparison to other countries whilst Singapore continues to perform well. Some schools in South Africa have decided to adopt the Singaporean method of teaching mathematics, known as Singapore Maths, in the hope of improving learner results. This study seeks to understand how two different curricula, South African and Singapore, provide opportunity for the development of algebraic thinking in the Foundation Phase. There is ongoing research which suggests a link between algebraic thinking (Early Algebra) and a deeper conceptual understanding of mathematics (Blanton & Kaput, 2003). This study comprises a qualitative case study of two schools using different curricula and textbooks to teach algebraic thinking with a special focus on patterns and functional thinking. Data were gathered using document analysis of curriculum and textbooks; learner tests; semi structured interviews with class teachers and focus group interviews with Grade 3 learners from each curriculum group. The analysis process involved pattern matching and building explanations related to each data collection instrument using Blanton, Brizuela, Gardiner, Sawrey and Newman-Owen’s (2015) levels of sophistication in learner’s thinking about functional relationships. The results of the study suggest that although South African learners have the potential to think algebraically, they are not, however, always offered the opportunities to do so. The importance of suitable mathematical activities and scaffolding is highlighted and the critical need for professional development for teachers in which the importance of Early Algebra is defined and explained. It is imperative that the curriculum and textbooks activities are relooked at to address the development of algebraic thinking in the early grades and shift the focus from an emphasis on arithmetic relationships to thinking in generalised ways about functional relationships.