'Playing the game' of story problems : situated cognition in algebra problem solving
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The importance of mathematics instruction including "real life" contexts relevant to students’ lives and experiences is widely acknowledged (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2010; National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2000; 2006; 2009), however questions about why contextualized mathematics is beneficial and how different types of contextualization impact problem solving have yet to be fully addressed by research. Common justifications for contextualized mathematics include the idea that relevant contexts may help students to apply what they learn in school to out-of-school situations, and that relevant contexts may scaffold learning by providing a bridge between what students understand and the content they are trying to learn. The present study investigates these justifications, as well as students' beliefs and problem-solving methods, using story problems on linear functions. A situated cognition theoretical framework (Greeno, 2006) is used to interpret student behavior in the complex, social system of "school mathematics." In a series of interviews, students from a low-performing urban school were presented with algebra problems. Some problems were personalized to the ways in which they described using mathematics in their everyday lives, while others were normal story problems, story problems with equations, or abstract symbolic equations. Results showed that students rarely explicitly used situational knowledge when solving story problems, had consistent issues with verbal interpretation of stories, and engaged in non-coordinative reasoning where they bypassed the intermediate step of understanding the given situation before trying to solve the problem. After completing most of Algebra I, students still had considerable difficulty with symbolic representations, and struggled to coordinate formal and informal mathematical reasoning. Problems with the same mathematical structure with different amounts of verbal and symbolic support elicited different strategies from students, with personalized problems having high response rates and high use of informal strategies. This suggests that students can use sophisticated, situation-based reasoning on contextualized problems, and that different problem framings may scaffold learning. However, results also demonstrated that the culture of schooling, and story problems as an artifact of this culture, undermines many of the justifications for contextualizing mathematics, and that students need more authentic ways to develop their mathematical reasoning.
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