Arithmetic vs Algebra

Algebra had always been associated with high school mathematics while arithmetic, the study of numbers, is associated with elementary school mathematics. The elementary school curriculum incorporated some content topics traditionally studied in high school. However, I believe that more than knowledge of additional content, pupils can best be prepared for further mathematics work by engaging them in activities in deeper and more challenging ways using the traditional content of elementary school mathematics. I believe that children who become familiar with algebraic thinking from an early age and in meaningful contexts will do better in mathematics.


There is this study which I read in this paper titled A cognitive gap between arithmetic and algebra. This study distinguished algebra and arithmetic in terms of the type of equation tasks. According to them if the equation only involves one unknown then that is an arithmetic task. If the equation involves two unknowns then it is an algebra task. For example,


(1) 15 + ____ = 40 is an arithmetic task while
(2) ____ = 4 + _____ is an algebra task.


This distinction, in a way, makes sense. To answer Equation (1), a child only need to ask: What number should I put in the blank so that when I add it to 15, it gives 40? Equation (2) involves the concept of a variable. There are infinite values that you can  put in the two blanks. It also involves  the concept of function, the relationships between two numbers. The two numbers in the blanks cannot be just any number. The two numbers must differ by 4 and the number in the first blank should always be the greater number. This relationship is a “very algebraic” concept. But, even then, I’m still not very excited about this distinction between algebra and arithmetic!


I believe that one is engaged in algebra when one thinks algebraically. Equation (1) for example is not necessarily an arithmetic task. If a students solves it by reasoning that because they are equal then even if I subtract 15 from both side of the equality sign then I still maintain the equality then he is doing algebra.  Another solution to Equation (1) is to express 40 as 15 plus another number, i.e., 15 + ___ = 15 + 25. This may be a simple solution but it involves another very important principle: Since the quantities on both sides of the equal sign are equal and 15 is equal to 15, then the blank must be equal to 25! This is algebraic reasoning! As for Equation (2) even if students can generate hundreds of correct pairs of values, if they cannot see the relationship between the two numbers that goes to the blanks then they are not yet engaging in algebra.So it is not the task or the problem but the solutions we use to solve it that could tell whether we are doing algebra or not.


It is true in maths. It is true in life. The way we solve our problems tells a lot about us.
Creative Commons License

This work by Erlina Ronda is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 .

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3 Responses to Arithmetic vs Algebra

  1. money says:

    Awesome blog it’s not often that I comment but I felt you deserve it.

  2. Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

  3. G. Bautista says:

    this is very informative. keep it up.

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