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Discussion: All Topics in Algebra
Topic: Is "variable" confusing to students?

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Subject:   RE: Is 'variable' confusing to students?
Author: rodaniel
Date: May 12 2009
Susan, I think students need to be versatile in their understanding of and use
of variable. Yes, we should call it the 'unknown' and 'variable'. The idea is
much bigger than x or variable or unknown. It is central to algebraic
understanding. I would encourage you to really explore with your students just
finding variables in real life on a daily basis so that they learn that
variables are just 'things' that change; characteristics that can be quantified.
I use digital photos with students daily for them to begin to see relationships
between variables. If you show a picture of a child blowing the seeds off of a
mature dandelion flower then you ask them if they can see anything
happening/changing. The flower has a set number of seeds and is losing a certain
number every second as the child blows on it. Or the child has so much air to
blow on the flower before he runs out, or has to take another breath (but that's
a piecewise function and best saved for students with more experience).

Anyway, I encourage you to explore the relationship between objects that
students can visually see/experience as part of your development and help them
bridge the gap between the abstract concept of variable and some real
experiences that they can understand or help describe.

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