Algebra 1: Concepts and Skills

I had an interesting discussion through a Facebook post recently regarding concepts vs skills. I want to share some information I have gathered regarding this topic. I do so, because there were a substantial number of teachers advocating for skill based learning. I hope to initiate some meaningful discussion.

Below left is a photo of an information processing model presented in a graduate level course on learning I took at UCONN. A key element I want to highlight is that information is more effectively processed if the information is meaningful. A theory behind this is Gestalt Theory in which the brain want to make information meaningful or organize it, e.g., the closure model in which our brains complete the triangle in the middle of the circle portions.

The meaning underlying math skills originates in the concepts. Below are the definitions for both, with the concepts being the “how or why” underlying the skills which are the “what to do” part.

I am not arguing that skills are unimportant or that rote practice is wrong. My position is that the concepts should drive the process. Here is a cartoon I think highlights the challenges with students having only skill based knowledge for topics that have important underlying concepts. I witnessed this first hand as a college adjunct instructor and found that a substantial number of students only understood slope by its formula. I also see a substantial number of students receiving special ed services who are taught at a skill level only to allow for progress. Often this is challenging for them when they have working memory or processing issues.

I will summarize in my own words an interpretation an article I read on the definition of Math, which stated there is no singular definition. The following was a theme that appeared to emerge. Math is a set of quantitative related ideas that can help explain the phenomena and the world. The mathematical symbols are used to represent these ideas. There are different ways to represent these ideas, e.g., we represent functions with tables, graphs, and equations. Formal proofs in Western Civilization are not the same a those in the East. Computer based proofs are not fully accepted by many math experts.

Technology has provided amazing ways to represent mathematical ideas. The most genius approach I have encountered is Dragonbox. The image below shows their initial representation of an equation through their algebra app. It develops the concept and the skills simultaneously.

Below is a list of some algebra 1 topics and some of the associated concepts. These are largely derived from math sources but include some massaging by me. I am happy to hear the working definitions of others.

Information Processing Analogy – Big Picture

Effective instruction is effective because it addresses the key elements of how the brain processes information. I share an analogy to help adults (parents and educators) fully appreciate this.

Information Processing Model

Below is a model of information processing first introduced to me in a master’s course at UCONN.

Here is a summary of what is shown in the model.

  1. Human senses are bombarded by external stimuli: smells, images, sounds, textures and flavors.
  2. We have a filter that allows only some of these stimuli in. We focus on the ones that are most interesting or relevant to us.
  3. Our working memory works to make sense of the stimuli and to package it for storage. It is like a computer, if there is too much going on, working memory will buffer.
  4. The information will be stored in long term memory.
    • Either it will be dropped off in some random location and our brain will forget the location (like losing our keys)
    • Or it will be stored in a file cabinet in a drawer with other information just like it. This information is easier to find.

Analogy to Classroom Learning

Here is an analogy to what happens during school instruction. You are driving down the street, like the one shown below.

There is a lot of visual stimuli. The priority is for you to pay attention to the arrows for the lanes, the red light and the cars in front of you. You have to process your intended direction and choose the lane.

Other present stimuli may be filtered out because it is not pertinent to your task: a car parked off to the right, the herbie curbies (trash bins), the little white arrows at the bottom of the photo. There is extraneous info you may allow to pass through your filter because it catches your eye: the ladder on the right or the cloud formation in the middle.

Maybe you are anxious because you are running late or had a bad experience that you are mulling over. This is using up band width in your working memory. Maybe you are a relatively new driver and simple driving tasks eat up the bandwidth as well.

Impact on Students

For students with a disability that impacts processing or attention, the task demands described above are even more challenging. A student with ADHD has a filter that is less effective. One with autism (a rule follower type) may not understand social settings such as a driver that will run a red light that just turned red. Another with visual processing issues may struggle with picking out the turn arrows. Their brain may start to buffer, like a computer.

What is Buffering? — Causes and How to Stop It - Dignited

Specific Disabilities

Effective instruction would address these challenges proactively. Here is a video regarding learning disabilities (LD) that summarizes the need in general for teachers to be highly responsive to student needs. This link is for a great video that helps makes sense of what autism in terms of how stimuli can be received by those with autism (look for the street scene). Another is a video of a researcher explaining how ADHD responds to sensory input (he gets to a scenario that shows how impulsiveness can be a factor).

What to Do

To address these challenges:

  • Reduce the amount of information presented in a lesson segment, i.e., chunk the lesson.
  • Use color, e.g. highlighters – this helps students see the different parts of a problem
  • Use hands on and visual representations in lieu of words – words are symbolic and abstract, start with forms of information easier to process.
  • Connect information to prior knowledge or make it relevant.
  • Scaffold the work to provide supports for unpacking the concept, following the steps, or identifying the parts.
  • Relevant situations – learn by doing. Have the instructional setting mirror the real life setting as much as possible. Better yet, conduct instruction in the real life setting.

The I in Instruction can be the same I in IEP and IDEA.

I am consistently surprised by the reliance on canned items for students who struggle. There are different reasons students struggle but we know that there are secondary characteristics and factors that inhibit effective information processing that can be addressed with some Individualization.

In a math intervention graduate course I teach at the University of Saint Joseph, my graduate students are matched up with a K-12 student with special needs. The graduate student implements instructional strategies learned from our course work. Below is the work of one of my grad students. From class work and our collaboration we developed the idea of using the fish and a pond as base 10 blocks for the student my grad student was helping. He likes fish and fish will get his attention. The grad student explained that if he has 10 fish the 10 fish go into a pond. In the photo below the student modeled 16 with a TEN (pond) and 6 ONES (fish).

2018-07-26 17.13.05.jpg

Similarly, another student likes Starbursts and that student’s respective grad student created Starburst packs to represent TENS and ONES (there are actually 12 pieces in a pack so we fudged a little).  The point is that it was intuitive and relevant for the student. The student understood opening a pack to get a Starburst piece.

2018-07-26 17.41.15


Retaining Information

Below is a model for information processing (retention and retrieval). Here are a couple key points I want to highlight:

  • A lot of information is filtered out so what gets through? Information that is interesting or relevant.
  • Information that is connected to prior knowledge, is relevant or that is organized has a better change of being stored effectively for retrieval.
  • Working memory has a limited capacity. Consider what happens to your computer when you have a lot of apps open. Your computer may start to buffer which is basically what happens to our kiddos if instruction involves opening too many apps in their brains.
  • Long term memory is basically retrieval of information. Think a student’s book bag with a ton of papers crammed in it. How well can he or she find homework? Compare this to a well maintained file cabinet that has a folder labeled homework with the homework assignment in question stored in this folder. That paper is much easier to retrieve. This is analogous to long-term memory. If the information is relevant or meaningful it will be stored in the file cabinet folder and more easily retrieved. In contrast, rote memorization like the rules teachers present students are papers crammed into an overflowing bookbag.
Information Processing.jpg


One model for memory is called the Information Processing Model or Dual Storage Model.


Here’s the suggested process in this model in a class instruction context:

  1. Our senses receive stimuli. In the classroom students hear the teacher or a classmate talking, see the teacher’s notes or the note being passed to them, smell various things in class, taste their gum etc. 
  2. The sensory register filters out most stimuli which means the teacher’s lesson is competing with all the other stimuli for attention. Most students are either visual or hands on learners yet the majority of instruction is conducted through auditory means. Information in a lesson that is meaningful or interesting is more likely to make it through the register.
  3. The information that makes it to the working memory is processed. Working memory has a limited capacity. Like a computer, if it is attempting to process a lot at one time it slows down. It is hard for some students to process a lot of auditory information if they are a visual learner so as they are attempting to process they may be missing other parts of instruction. This is why scaffolding and other strategies are important. They help reduce the amount of information the student has to process. The working memory also attempts to organize and make sense of the information -Gestalt Theory. In the photo below are some examples. When I present the image below under “closure” and ask people what they see, the response is almost always “a triangle.” The really is no triangle there but the brain fills in the gaps. The brain wants to make the visual information meaningful. 
  4. The information that makes it to long term memory is filed away. Effective learning means the stored information can be readily retrieved. Think of computer files or files in a file cabinet. I have a file for Gabriel’s IEPs so I can easily retrieve them. Contrast that with how a student may stuff his homework assignment into his bookbag but later cannot find it. Effective storage is enhanced when the information is organized and makes sense. This is helped by making the information meaningful or by addressing prior knowledge (e.g. new IEPs filed with old IEPs).

Most if not all educational strategies would address some aspect of this model.