Natural Alternatives to Natural Number: The Case of Ratio

Percival G. Matthews, Amy B. Ellis


The overwhelming majority of efforts to cultivate early mathematical thinking rely primarily on counting and associated natural number concepts. Unfortunately, natural numbers and discretized thinking do not align well with a large swath of the mathematical concepts we wish for children to learn. This misalignment presents an important impediment to teaching and learning. We suggest that one way to circumvent these pitfalls is to leverage students’ non-numerical experiences that can provide intuitive access to foundational mathematical concepts. Specifically, we advocate for explicitly leveraging a) students’ perceptually based intuitions about quantity and b) students’ reasoning about change and variation, and we address the affordances offered by this approach. We argue that it can support ways of thinking that may at times align better with to-be-learned mathematical ideas, and thus may serve as a productive alternative for particular mathematical concepts when compared to number. We illustrate this argument using the domain of ratio, and we do so from the distinct disciplinary lenses we employ respectively as a cognitive psychologist and as a mathematics education researcher. Finally, we discuss the potential for productive synthesis given the substantial differences in our preferred methods and general epistemologies.


number; perception; ratio; rational number

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