Curricular Coherence Part 2: Evolution from Particulars to Deep Structures

In my previous post on curricular coherence I talked about how the principle of logical sequencing can determine the ordering of a set of topics. Since time is one-dimensional, and curriculum occurs over time, some principle for ordering is necessary. However, mathematics is not a linearly ordered set of topics; it is better viewed as a network. In this post I’d like to talk about deep structures. A deep structure is, roughly speaking, a node in the network of mathematical knowledge with many connections. Of course, this is not a precise definition; the organization of the subject into a network is to a certain extent a matter of judgment and preference, although some connections are dictated by the principle of logical sequencing. However, this will serve for a start in describing the principle of evolution from particulars to deep structures.

I’ll talk about two ways in which the such evolution occurs: extension and encapsulation. Extension is a process by which a particular principle is repeatedly applied to ever broader systems, thus revealing its nature as a deep structure. Encapsulation is a process by which a related array of concepts and skills becomes encapsulated into a single compound concept or skill.

Extension is exemplified in the way that arithmetic with whole numbers is extended to fractions, integers, and rational numbers through a program of preserving the properties of operations. The fact that $(-3)\times (-5)$ is 15 is a definition, rather than a theorem—it has to be that way if we want arithmetic with integers to obey the distributive property. The properties of operations start from observation of particular instances, and evolve into powerful deeper structures under-girding the number system.

A good example of encapsulation is the development of fractions. The standard 3.NF.A.1 expects students to “Understand a fraction $1/b$ as the quantity formed by 1 part when a whole is partitioned into $b$ equal parts; understand a fraction $a/b$ as the quantity formed by $a$ parts of size $1/b$” and 3.NF.A.2 expects students to use this understanding to represent fractions on a number line. These two standards encapsulate many prior ideas and activities: dividing a physical object into halves or thirds; recognizing a geometric figure as a fraction of a larger figure representing the whole; moving from area representations to linear measurement representations; understanding the number line as marked off in unit lengths; subdividing those lengths into $n$ equal parts and thinking of those parts as a new sort of unit, an $n$th, and measuring out distances in those new units; correlating all these activities to the numerator and the denominator of the fraction.

Encapsulation builds coherence by tying what were previously disparate ideas and actions into a tightly connected structured bundle which becomes viewed as an object in its own right.

Proportional relationships

An important type of encapsulation is the evolution of representations. Mature representations are a form of encapsulation, and should be developed through a sequence of intermediate representations whose structural features preserve information about the object being represented. In early grades students might start with pictorial representations; but even then the picture should be more than a picture: it should carry information about the situation. Over time, such pictures evolve into more abstract diagrammatic representations, and eventually these diagrams are replaced by even more abstract representations such as tables and equations. The figure shows such an evolution for representations of proportional relationships in middle school. That final equation $y=kx$ is very dense with meaning, or at least it should be so for students. By the way, this is the sequence of representations for proportional relationships that we use in our new middle school curriculum coming out in July.

2 thoughts on “Curricular Coherence Part 2: Evolution from Particulars to Deep Structures

  1. The thought process described here seems to mirror the structure of computer systems development. The systems engineer maps related functions in layers and then automates them. Connecting thought processes within mathematics to those in 21st century careers could be helpful for HS teachers trying to establish relevance. Thanks for the food for thought.

  2. Two things:

    (*) Bill’s story of encapsulation is mirrored in the story of encapsulation of functions in HS. Ask a second grader “what’s 1/2?” and you’ll usually get “half of what?” Ask a HS sophomore “what’s cosine?” and you often hear “cosine of what?”. These operators need to be encapsulated into \emph{things} in order to use them as inputs to other higher order operations, like addition of fractions or derivatives of functions. Common Core makes explicit this journey from process to object, a journey that takes time and attention in school mathematics.

    (*) There’s a substantial intersection of the use of encapsulation between mathematics and computer science. One of the most elegant treatment of this intersection is the classic CS book “Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs” by Ableson and Sussman:

    SCIP is a treatment of computational thinking, but it’s one of the best sources for mathematical thinking that I’ve ever read.


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