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Reconceptualizing Procedural Knowledge Author(s): Jon R. Star Source: Journal for Research in Mathematics Education,

Reconceptualizing Procedural Knowledge Author(s): Jon R. Star

Source: Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, Vol. 36, No. 5 (Nov., 2005), pp. 404-

411

Published by: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics

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Research Commentary

ReconceptualizingProcedural Knowledge

JonR. Star,MichiganState University

Inthisarticle,I argueforarenewedfocusinmathematicseducationresearchonproce- duralknowledge.I makethreemain points:(1)Thedevelopmentofstudents'proce- dural knowledgehasnotreceiveda greatdealofattentioninrecentresearch;(2)one possibleexplanationforthis deficiencyisthatcurrentcharacterizationsof concep- tualandproceduralknowledgereflectlimitingassumptionsabouthowproceduresare known;and(3)reconceptualizingproceduralknowledgetoremedythese assumptions wouldhaveimportantimplicationsforbothresearchandpractice.

Keywords:Algorithm;Conceptualknowledge;Flexibility;Heuristic;Procedural

knowledge

The respectiverolesof proceduralandconceptualknowledge instudents' learning ofmathematicscontinuetobea topicofanimatedconversationinthemathematics educationcommunity.As a prominentmathematicseducator(Sowder,1998)noted several yearsago,"Whether developing skillswith symbolsleadsto conceptual understanding,or whetherthepresenceof basic understandingshould precede symbolicrepresentationand skill practice, is one of thebasic disagreements" betweentheopposingsidesoftheso-calledmathwars. Among thosewho argue againstcurrentreformefforts,thereisa perceptionthatproceduralknowledgeacqui- sitionhasbeen de-emphasizedanddeemedless importantthan conceptualknowl- edge, withdire consequencesforstudent learning(e.g., Budd et al., 2005; MathematicallyCorrect,n.d.).Although somereformers mightdisagreewiththis characterization,othersare quiteexplicitintheirbeliefthat proceduralknowledge should play a secondary,supporting roleto conceptualknowledge in students' learning ofmathematics (e.g.,Pesek& Kirschner,2000).Some go sofaras tostate thataninstructionalfocuson proceduralknowledge,ratherthan conceptualknowl- edge,leadstothe developmentofisolatedskillsandrote knowledge,andthat"a rushfor proceduralskillwillactuallydomoreharmthangood"(Brown,Seidelmann, & Zimmermann,n.d.). Thisissuehas deeprootsinourfield (e.g.,Brownell,1945;Hiebert& Lefevre, 1986;Skemp,1976);thecurrentmathwarsindicatethatwe stillhavenotreached consensusonthe respectiverolesof proceduralknowledgeand conceptualknowl-

ThankstoHeatherHill,DeborahBall,MagdaleneLampert,JackSmith,Colleen

Seifert,JamesHiebert,andseveralanonymousreviewersforhelpfulcommentson

earlierversionsofthisarticle.

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JonR.Star

405

edgeinstudentlearning.Infact,theremaybe more(andmorevitriolic)debateon this topic now thanat any timein therecent past,particularly with respect to proceduralskillacquisition.Whyis thatthecase?Inthisarticle,I reflectuponthe natureoftheconversationabout procedures andconceptsbymakingthree points. First,I claimthatdisagreementsontheroleof proceduralknowledge inmathematics learningareprimarilyideologicalratherthanempirical: Wehavenotdevoteda great deal ofattentionin ourresearchto proceduralknowledge andits development.

Althoughwewantstudentstouse procedures"flexibly,accurately,efficiently, and

appropriately"(NationalResearchCouncil,2001,p. 116),we do notknowa lot aboutwhatthisinstructionaloutcomelookslike,muchlesshowit mightdevelop. Second,I claimthata reasonfortherelativelackofresearchonproceduralknowl- edge is thatcurrentcharacterizationsof thetermsproceduralknowledgeand conceptualknowledgearelimitingandareinfactimpediments tocarefulinvesti- gations oftheseconstructs.Third,I argue that reconceptualizingprocedural knowl- edge-and making ita renewedfocusofresearch-wouldhave importantimpli- cationsforbothresearchandpractice.

LACK OF RECENT RESEARCH ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF PROCEDURAL KNOWLEDGE

A survey of journals and publicly availabledatabasesindicatesthatthedevel- opmentofstudents'proceduralknowledge hasnotbeena recentfocusofresearch in mathematicseducation.A key wordsearchof theEducationalResources InformationCenter(ERIC) databaseforproceduralfluency, a term recently promotedby theNationalResearchCouncil(2001) inAddingIt Up,yielded no articles. Perhapsgiven thenewnessoftheterm,thisvoidmaynotbe surprising. ERIC also indicates,however,thattheratioofjournal articlesin mathematics educationthatusethetermsconceptualknowledge orconceptualunderstanding tothosethatusethetermsproceduralknowledge orproceduralskillis approxi- mately 4:1. Similarly, an ERIC key wordsearchof thepast 10 years of the

JournalforResearchinMathematicsEducation(JRME)forprocedureoralgo-

rithmyielded six articles,only fourofwhichwereevenperipherallyrelatedto students'knowledge of procedures.Perhaps mostconvincingly,oftheapproxi- mately100empirical articlesrelatedtothe development ofK-12 students'math- ematicalcontent knowledgepublished overthe past decadeintheJRME,in only 11didtheresearcherscarefullyinvestigate the development ofstudents'knowl- edgeofprocedures.Although this survey is farfromexhaustive,it suggests that the ways thatstudentscometoknow,use,andunderstandmathematical proce- dureshavenotbeena prominent focusofmathematicseducationresearchforat

least10years.

Procedureswerewidelystudiedin the1980s,whenmanystudiesfocusedon students'procedural errors(e.g., Brown& VanLehn,1980;Matz,1980).Inaddi- tion,a largeamountofliteratureon procedural skillacquisitionexistsin cognitive psychology(e.g.,Anderson,Fincham,& Douglass,1997),andtherelationship

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406

ReconceptualizingProceduralKnowledge

betweenprocedural and conceptualknowledge continuestobe a topic ofresearch indevelopmentalpsychology(e.g.,Rittle-Johnson,Siegler,& Alibali,2001). But forat leastthe past 10 years, mathematicseducationresearchershave largely avoideddetailedandcarefulstudiesofthedevelopmentofproceduralskill. Why is thatthecase? It is perhaps no coincidencethattherelativelack of researchon procedures hasoccurredina timeof political strifeformathematics educators.As alludedtoabove,thedevelopment of procedural skillanditsrole in K-12 instructionhavebeenparticularlycontentiousissuesinthemathwars, whichmightexplain someresearchers'reluctanceto pursue this topic. In addi-

tion,and political reasons notwithstanding, someresearchers may believethat

proceduralknowledge shouldnotbe a focusofresearchorinstruction,perhaps becauseofa perception thatskillsarenolongerofsufficientinstructional impor- tance(comparedwithconceptualknowledge)tojustifystudiesofinterventions

primarilydesigned to improveproceduralknowledge. Otherresearchersmayfeel thatthe widespreadavailabilityoftechnological toolshasreducedoreliminated theneedtostudypedagogical and cognitive issuesassociatedwiththe learning of procedural skills.Thereis evidence,however,that manymathematicseduca- torscontinuetobelievethat procedural skill plays a fundamentalandvitalrole instudents'learning ofmathematics(Ballheim,1999;NationalResearchCouncil, 2001). NotethatI amnot claiming that proceduralknowledge is more important thanconceptualknowledge.Rather,I claimthatbotharecritical components of students'mathematicalproficiency andthusmeritcarefulstudy. I propose a complementaryexplanation forthelackofmathematicseducation researchonthe developmentofproceduralknowledge-namely,thatcurrentchar- acterizationsof conceptualandproceduralknowledgereflectimplicitandlargely unfounded assumptionsabouthowconceptsandproceduresareknown.

CURRENT CHARACTERIZATIONSOF CONCEPTUAL AND PROCEDURAL KNOWLEDGE

The widespread useofthetermsconceptualknowledge and proceduralknowl- edgecanbe attributedtotheseminalbookedited by Hiebert(1986),particularly theintroductorychapterbyHiebertandLefevre(1986). Theydefine conceptual knowledgeas

knowledgethatisrichin relationships.Itcanbethoughtofasa connectedwebofknowl- edge,a networkinwhichthe linkingrelationshipsareasprominentasthediscrete pieces ofinformation.Relationshipspervadetheindividualfactsandpropositionssothatall

piecesofinformationarelinkedtosomenetwork.(pp.3-4)

Procedural knowledge is definedas follows:

Onekindofproceduralknowledgeisa familiaritywiththeindividualsymbolsofthe systemandwiththesyntacticconventionsforacceptableconfigurationsofsymbols. Thesecondkindofproceduralknowledgeconsistsofrulesor proceduresforsolving mathematicalproblems.Manyoftheproceduresthatstudentspossessprobablyare

chainsofprescriptionsformanipulatingsymbols.(pp.7-8)

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JonR. Star

407

A closelookattheseexcerptsrevealsthatconceptualknowledgeis notdefined

as knowledgeofconceptsorprinciples,as a parsingofthe phrasemightsuggest. Rather,itisdefinedintermsofthequalityofone's knowledge of concepts-partic- ularly therichnessoftheconnectionsinherentinsuchknowledge.Thisdefinition isa critical departure from psychologicalviewsof concepts,especiallyinitsdepic- tionof conceptualknowledge as richin relationships.Thetermconceptdoesimply connected knowledge, whetheroneis speaking ofmathematicalconcepts(e.g.,limit, slope) or concepts more broadly(e.g.,furniture,bicycle).But psychologically speaking,knowledge ofa concept is not necessarilyrichin relationships(Medin, 1989):Theconnectionsinherentina conceptmay be onlylimitedand superficial, or theymay be extensiveand deep.' For example, a veryyoungchild'sconceptual knowledgeofdogmaybe lessdeep,sophisticated,andconnectedthanan adult's (Gelman,Star,& Flukes,2002);a similarpointcouldbemadeaboutthedifference betweena 6th grader's andan 11th grader'sconceptualknowledge of slope.The pointis thatmathematicseducatorswhostrictlyadheretoHiebertandLefevre's (1986) definitionimplicitlyreferonlytoa particularsubsetofconceptualknowl- edge: thatwhichis richly connectedor deep. Whatabout proceduralknowledge? Hiebertand Lefevre(1986) definethis term essentially as knowledge of procedures:knowledge of the syntax,steps, conventions,andrulesfor manipulatingsymbols. Intermsofthequalityofknowl- edgeimplicit inthedefinition,HiebertandLefevre(1986) suggestthattherela- tionshipspresent in proceduralknowledge are primarilysequential: A step ina procedure is connectedtothenext step.By thisdefinition,proceduralknowledge is superficial;itis notrichinconnections.As was thecase above,thisdefinition is a significantdeparture from psychologicalperspectives on procedures. There are manydifferentkindsof procedures, andthe quality oftheconnectionswithin

a procedure varies(Anderson,1982).Some procedures are algorithms,meaning

thatifoneexecutesthe procedure'ssteps ina predetermined orderandwithout

error,oneisguaranteed toreachtheproblem'ssolution.Algorithmsareapparently whatHiebertandLefevrehadinmindwhen they craftedtheirdefinitionof proce- dural knowledge; in algorithms, itisthecasethat sequentialrelationshipspredom- inate.Butotherprocedures areheuristics,meaning rulesofthumborsomewhat

generalandmoreabstractprocedures that may be helpful in solvinga problem. Heuristicproceduresare tremendouslypowerfulassets in problemsolving (Schoenfeld,1979).The executionofheuristicsrequiresthatonemakechoices; wisechoicescanindicate quitesophisticated and deepknowledge. Mathematics educatorswhostrictlyadheretoHiebertandLefevre'sdefinitionof procedural knowledgearereferringonly to knowledge of algorithms; forthissubsetof proce-

1Deep-levelknowledgehasbeenstructuredandstoredin memory ina way thatmakesitmaximally usefulfortheperformanceoftasks,whereassurface-or superficial-levelknowledge isassociatedwith rotelearning,inflexibility,reproduction, andtrialanderror(Glaser,1991).Deep-levelknowledge is associatedwithcomprehension,abstraction,flexibility, critical judgment, andevaluation(De Jong &

Ferguson-Hessler,1996).

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408

ReconceptualizingProceduralKnowledge

dures,itisreasonableto depictalgorithmicknowledge as typicallysuperficial,fully compiled, orrote(Anderson,1992).Heuristics,however,are procedurestoo,and

theHiebertandLefevredefinitiondoesnotaccountforthem.2

HiebertandLefevre's(1986) definitionsofproceduraland conceptualknowl-

edgewere quite influentialin

terminology torefertostudents' knowledge ofmathematics.However,the preceding

discussionillustratesthatthesetermssufferfroma entanglementofknowledgetype andknowledgequality(De Jong & Ferguson-Hessler,1996;Star,2000)thatmakes theiruse somewhat problematic,especially for proceduralknowledge.Theterm conceptualknowledgehascometo encompass not onlywhatisknown (knowledge of concepts) butalso onewaythat concepts canbe known (e.g.,deeplyandwith richconnections).Similarly,thetermproceduralknowledgeindicatesnot onlywhat isknown (knowledgeofprocedures)butalsoone waythat procedures(algorithms) canbe known (e.g.,superficially andwithoutrichconnections).

providingmathematicseducatorswitha well-defined

If knowledgetype and knowledgequalityhavebecomeconflated,thenwhat woulditmeanto disentanglethem?Considerthe2 x 2 matrixshowninTable 1. The matrixsuggeststhatforboth knowledgetypes(knowledgeof concepts and knowledge of procedures),onecanhave knowledge thatiseither superficialordeep. Thecurrent usage oftheterms conceptualknowledgeandproceduralknowledge makesitdifficulttoconsider(orevenname)the knowledgethatbelongsinthe deep proceduralknowledgecell.3Deep proceduralknowledgewouldbe knowledge of

proceduresthatisassociatedwith comprehension,flexibility, andcritical judgment

andthatisdistinctfrom(butpossiblyrelatedto)knowledgeofconcepts.Separating these independentcharacteristicsof knowledge(typeversus quality)allowsforthe reconceptualizationofproceduralknowledgeas potentiallydeep.

Table1

Typesand QualitiesofProceduraland ConceptualKnowledge

Knowledgetype.

Procedural

Conceptual

Knowledgequality

Superficial

Deep

Commonusageof

proceduralknowledge

9

9

Commonusageof

conceptualknowledge

2 HiebertandLefevre(1986)acknowledgethattheirdefinitionsofproceduralandconceptualknowl-

edge do notaccountforheuristics. Theywrite,"No soonerthanwe propose definitionsfor conceptual and proceduralknowledgeandattemptto clarifythem,wemustback upandacknowledgethatthedefi- nitionswe have givenandthe impressionstheyconvey willbe flawedinsome way.As wehavesaid, notall knowledge fits nicely intooneclassortheother.Some knowledge liesattheintersection.Heuristic strategiesfor solvingproblems, whichthemselvesare objects of thought, are examples"(p. 9). 3The cellfor superficialconceptualknowledge wasalludedtointhe precedingdiscussionof concep- tual knowledge.Knowledge of conceptscertainlyinvolvesrelationships,butthose relationshipsarenot necessarilydeep orrich.A learner'sinitial knowledge ofa conceptis typicallyquitesuperficialand fragile,butovertimethe relationships can deepenandbecomericher.

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JonR.Star

409

Whatdoes deepproceduralknowledge looklike? Inspiration forthisenhanced viewof proceduralknowledge canbe foundinresearchfromthe1980sandearly 1990s(e.g.,Davis, 1983;Ohlsson& Rees, 1991;VanLehn,1990).For example,

VanLehnproposedthata studentcanhaveteleologicalunderstanding ofa proce-

dure,meaningknowledgeofitsdesign or justification foritsuse. Similarly, Davis writesof knowledge of procedures that might includesuch things as theorderof steps, the goals and subgoals of steps, theenvironmentor typeof situationin whichtheprocedure isused,theconstraints imposedupon the procedureby theenvi- ronmentor situation,and any heuristicsor commonsense knowledge thatare inherentintheenvironmentorsituation.Bothofthese examples illustrate proce- dural knowledge thatis richin relationships. My ownworkon the development ofproceduralflexibilityprovides a more concreteandrecent example(Star,2000,2002a,2001/2002b;Star& Seifert,in press). Whenstudentsuseformalmethodstosolvelinearequations in algebra,they haveavailablea very limitedsetofactions: adding toor subtracting frombothsides, combining liketerms,distributing orfactoring,andmultiplyingordividingboth sides.Yet despite thatlimitation,thereisa widearrayof problemtypes.Skilledequa- tionsolvershavetheabilitytousetheequation-solving actions flexibly, so thata maximally efficientsolutioncanbe generated foranyproblemtype.I considerflex-

ibilitytobe anindicatorof deepproceduralknowledge. Flexibility is a nontrivialandoftenoverlookedcompetency.Considerthree relativelysimple(andsuperficiallyquitesimilar)linearequations:(a) 2(x+ 1) + 3(x+ 1) = 10;(b) 2(x+ 1)+ 3(x+ 1) = 11; and(c) 2(x+ 1)+ 3(x+ 2) = 10.Although eachoftheseequations canbe solvedwiththesamesequenceofsteps(using a standardalgorithm for solving linear equations), themostefficientstrategymay notbe thestandardalgorithm.Furthermore,whatis meantby themostefficient strategyisquitenuanced.Is themostefficient strategy theonethatisthequickest oreasiesttodo,theonewiththefeweststeps, theonethatavoidstheuseoffrac- tions,or theone thatthesolverlikesthebest?Thereare subtleinteractions amongtheproblem'scharacteristics,one's knowledgeofprocedures,andone's problem-solvinggoals that might lead a solvertoimplement a particular series of procedural actions.Someonewithonlysuperficialknowledge of procedures likely hasnorecoursebuttousea standardtechnique,whichmayleadtolesseffi- cientsolutionsorevenaninabilitytosolveunfamiliarproblems. Buta moreflex- iblesolver-one witha deepknowledge of procedures-cannavigate hisorher waythroughthisproceduraldomain,usingtechniques otherthanonesthatare overpracticed, to produce solutionsthatbestmatch problem conditionsorsolving goals. I considerthiskindofflexibleknowledgetobe both procedural and deep. Flexibility is notwell explained orevenaccountedforintypical definitionsof conceptual and proceduralknowledge.

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410

ReconceptualizingProceduralKnowledge

THE IMPLICATIONS OF RECONCEPTUALIZING PROCEDURAL KNOWLEDGE

Reconceptualizingproceduralknowledge as describedabove has important implications forbothresearchand practice. Firstandforemost,recognizingtheexis- tenceof deepproceduralknowledgesuggeststheneedforresearchonwhatitis, howit develops, andwhatits relationship istoother types ofdesiredmathematical knowledge.Broadening thedefinitionof proceduralknowledgecouldbringproce- duresbackontotheresearch agenda ofmathematics educators-includingthose on both"sides"ofthemathwars.Second,accompanyingthesenewavenuesfor

researchis a needtobroadencurrent ways of

knowledge.Methodsfor assessing students' proceduralknowledge aresomewhat impoverishedatpresent,withproceduralknowledgeoftenmeasuredsimplybywhat

a studentcanorcannotdo. Researchmethodscaninsteadfocuson howstudents canandcannotdo andonthecharacterofthe knowledgetheyhave(includingits depth), which supports their ability to performprocedures. Andthird,deepproce- dural knowledge shouldbeconsideredaninstructional goal atalllevelsof schooling. If so, additionalresearchwouldbe neededtodevelopandevaluateinstructional interventionsandcurriculathatmightachievethisgoal,as wellas todeterminethe kindsofcontentknowledgeforteachingthatcouldsupportthe development of deep proceduralknowledge.

studying and assessingprocedural

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Author

JonR. Star,513 EricksonHall,College ofEducation,Michigan StateUniversity,EastLansing, MI

48824;jonstar@msu.edu

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