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This paper reports results from Grade 6 students’ written work on a functional thinking assessment item. The results show that students who experienced an early algebra intervention during Grades 3-5 were more likely to successfully represent a function rule in words and variables than students who did not. Also, both comparison and intervention groups of students were found to be more successful representing a function rule in variables than in words. The results underscore the impact of early algebra on students’ later success in algebra, specifically with functional thinking, and challenge the notion that variable as a varying quantity should not be introduced until secondary school.

Learning progressions have been demarcated by some for science education, or only concerned with levels of sophistication in student thinking as determined by logical analyses of the discipline. We take the stance that learning progressions can be leveraged in mathematics education as a form of curriculum research that advances a linked understanding of students learning over time through careful articulation of a curricular framework and progression, instructional sequence, assessments, and levels of sophistication in student learning. Under this broadened conceptualization, we advance a methodology for developing and validating learning progressions, and advance several design considerations that can guide research concerned with engendering forms of mathematics learning, and curricular and instructional support for that learning. We advance a two-phase methodology of (a) research and development, and (b) testing and revision. Each phase involves iterative cycles of design and experimentation with the aim of developing a validated learning progression. In particular, we gathered empirical data to revise our hypothesized curricular framework and progression and to measure change in students. thinking over time as a means to validate both the effectiveness of our instructional sequence and of the assessments designed to capture learning. We use the context of early algebra to exemplify our approach to learning progressions in mathematics education with a focus on the concept of mathematical equivalence across Grades 3-5. The domain of work on research on learning over time is evolving; our work contributes a broadened role for learning progressions work in mathematics education research and practice.

In this chapter, we discuss the algebraframework that guides our work and how this framework was enacted in the design of a curricular approach for systematically developing elementary-aged students’ algebraic thinking. Weprovide evidence that, using this approach, students in elementary grades can engage in sophisticated practices of algebraic thinking based on generalizing, representing, justifying, and reasoning with mathematical structure and relationships. Moreover, they can engage in these practices across a broad set of content areas involving generalized arithmetic; concepts associated with equivalence, expressions, equations, and inequalities; and functional thinking.

Third- through fifth-grade students participating in a classroom teaching experiment investigating the impact of an Early Algebra Learning Progression completed pre- and post-assessment items addressing their abilities to engage in functional thinking. We found that after a sustained early algebra intervention, students grew in their abilities to shift from recursive to covariational thinking about linear functions and to represent correspondence rules in both words and variables.

In this article we advance characterizations of and supports for elementary students’ progress in generalizing and representing functional relationships as part of a comprehensive approach to early algebra. Our learning progressions approach to early algebra research involves the coordination of a curricular framework and progression, an instructional sequence, written assessments, and levels of sophistication describing students’ algebraic thinking. After detailing this approach, we focus on what we have learned about the development of students’ abilities to generalize and represent functional relationships in a grades 3–5 early algebra intervention by sharing the levels of responses we observed in students’ written work over time. We found that the sophistication of students’ responses increased over the course of the intervention from recursive patterning to correspondence and in some cases covariation relationships between variables. Students’ responses at times differed by the particular tasks that were posed. We discuss implications for research and practice.