Click here to read Part 1: Understanding Math: A Cultural Problem.
Educational psychologist Richard Skemp popularized the terms instrumental understanding and relational understanding to describe these two ways of looking at mathematics. It is almost as if there were two unrelated subjects, both called “math” but as different from each other as American football is from the game the rest of the world calls football.
Which of the following sounds the most like your experience of school math? And which type of math are your children learning?
Instrumental Understanding: Math as a Tool
Every mathematical procedure we learn is an instrument or tool for solving a certain kind of problem. To understand math means to know which tool we are supposed to use for each type of problem and how to use that tool — how to categorize the problem, remember the formula, plug in the numbers, and do the calculation. To be fluent in math means we can produce correct answers with minimal effort.
Primary goal: to get the right answer. In math, answers are either right or wrong, and wrong answers are useless.
Key question: “What?” What do we know? What can we do? What is the answer?
Values: speed and accuracy.
Method: memorization. Memorize math facts. Memorize definitions and rules. Memorize procedures and when to use them. Use manipulatives and mnemonics to aid memorization.
Instrumental instruction focuses on the standard algorithms (the pencil-and-paper steps for doing a calculation) or other step-by-step procedures. This produces quick results because students can follow the teacher’s directions and crank out a page of correct answers. Students like completing their assignments with minimal struggle, parents are pleased by their children’s high grades, and the teacher is happy to make steady progress through the curriculum.
Unfortunately, the focus on rules can lead children to conclude that math is arbitrary and authoritarian. Also, rote knowledge tends to be fragile, and the steps are easy to confuse or forget. Thus those who see math instrumentally must include continual review of old topics and provide frequent, repetitive practice.
Relational Understanding: Math as a Connected System
Each mathematical concept is part of a web of interrelated ideas. To understand mathematics means to see at least some of this web and to use the connections we see to make sense of new ideas. Giving a correct answer without justification (explaining how we know it is right) is mere accounting, not mathematics. To be fluent in math means we can think of more than one way to solve a problem.
Primary goal: to see the building blocks of each topic and how that topic relates to other concepts.
Key questions: “How?” and “Why?” How can we figure that out? Why do we think this is true?
Values: logic and justification.
Method: conversation. Talk about the links between ideas, definitions, and rules. Explain why you used a certain procedure, and explore alternative approaches. Use manipulatives to investigate the logic behind a technique.
Relational instruction focuses on children’s thinking and expands on their ideas. This builds the students’ ability to reason logically and to approach new problems with confidence. Mistakes are not a mark of failure, but a sign that points out something we haven’t yet mastered, a chance to reexamine the mathematical web. Students look forward to the “Aha!” feeling when they figure out a new concept. Such an attitude establishes a secure foundation for future learning.
Unfortunately, this approach takes time and requires extensive personal interaction: discussing problems, comparing thoughts, searching for alternate solutions, and hashing out ideas. Those who see math relationally must plan on covering fewer new topics each year, so they can spend the necessary time to draw out and explore these connections. Relational understanding is also much more difficult to assess with a standardized test.
What constitutes mathematics is not the subject matter, but a particular kind of knowledge about it.
The subject matter of relational and instrumental mathematics may be the same: cars travelling at uniform speeds between two towns, towers whose heights are to be found, bodies falling freely under gravity, etc. etc.
But the two kinds of knowledge are so different that I think that there is a strong case for regarding them as different kinds of mathematics.
For Further Reading
- The difference between instrumental and relational understanding
- Richard Skemp’s Relational Understanding and Instrumental Understanding
- Instrumental vs. Relational: Student Response
Click to read Part 3: Is There Really a Difference?
CREDITS: “Humphreys High School Football” photo (top) by USAG- Humphreys via Flicker (CC BY 2.0). “Performing in middle school math class” (middle) by woodleywonderworks via Flicker (CC BY 2.0). “I Can Explain My Thinking” poster by Nicole Ricca via Teachers Pay Teachers. “Snow globe” photo by Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
This is the second post in my Understanding Math series, adapted from my book Let’s Play Math: How Families Can Learn Math Together—and Enjoy It, available at your favorite online book dealer.