Mathematics presents students with a mode of thinking/reasoning. It includes observation, attention to detail, analysis, synthesis, relevant question asking, and problem solving.  It involves some valuable traits like the ability to handle sweat, frustration, dead ends, perseverance, and the discovery that there is wonder, joy, and even some exhilaration at the end.  We invite students deeper into or higher up this mode of reasoning year-by-year, subject-by-subject. So what is higher level mathematical reasoning?

A look at some of the approved and adopted texts suggests that a typical answer is, “algebra.” Algebra is generally considered to be higher level math thinking for today’s school students. Constants, variables, coefficients, expressions, equations, quadratic equations, real, rational, and irrational numbers, and combining like terms…  If we can just get upper and even lower elementary students to start thinking about some of this, we believe that there is more of an opportunity for higher level math reasoning.

But what about geometry students who have already passed Algebra I, but still have not mastered basic number sense concepts involving fractions? For example, I tutored a high school geometry student recently who did not realize that if amount A is half as much as amount B, then amount B must be twice as much as amount A. This student had memorized the formula for determining the measure of an inscribed angle (it is 1/2 the measure of its intercepted arc), and had solved many problems correctly. But when asked to find the measure of the arc when given the measure of the angle, the student was stumped. It seems that for this student, thinking about basic fractional relationships was actually higher level mathematical reasoning—higher than the current level of understanding.

Higher level math reasoning for students is simply whatever the next step is from where they are now. The relationship between 1/2 and twice, or that a group can be both one and many, or that a “1” sitting in the tens column has a different value than a “1” in the ones column are all higher level math thinking for students who do not yet understand those concepts. People generally consider algebra more abstract than arithmetic, because it appears to be less concrete—and therefore it must be the flagship of “higher level mathematical reasoning.” But any concept is “abstract” to the student who does not understand it yet!

The critical element is not the level of difficulty of the work, but whether or not the work is being addressed through reasoning. Students who can factor quadratic equations because they have memorized a bunch of rules cannot be said to be applying higher level mathematical reasoning, unless they actually understand why they are doing what they are doing. There is a big difference between “higher level activities” and “higher level mathematical reasoning.” When higher level activities are taught through mere memorization or repetitive activities devoid of real understanding, they do not involve any reasoning at all. When lower level activities are taught in ways that make students really think, then those students are involved with higher level mathematical reasoning. And math teaching need not hang its head and feel inferior to other academic disciplines while focusing on these lower level activities.

Algebra is not the problem in itself. Thinking that it accomplishes the need for higher level reasoning and application is.

Another unfortunate answer to what is higher level mathematical reasoning can be seen in the rush to complicate problem sets in textbooks. The geometry book that the student I tutor is using in school, published by a major publisher and state adopted, has outstanding higher level math reasoning problems to solve. I’m having as much fun with some of them as I’m sure that authors and state committee members had. But my student and many in her class are not. There are precious few problems in any section of this book that allow students to develop a confident understanding of the basic concepts and procedures before “higher level math reasoning” is introduced in the form of clever and complicated levels of application.

Rather than leaping to higher level activities that require fluent reasoning that has not yet been developed, the interests of students would be better served if this book (and others like it) presented step-by-step contexts of problems of graduated difficulty—each problem based on the reasoning developed in the previous problem, and preparing students for the next step of reasoning represented in the following problem. The proper function of a math book is to develop mathematical reasoning, not merely to create problems that require its use. By rushing to over-complicate the problems, textbooks unwittingly exclude many students from success, actually thwarting the development of their reasoning and forcing them to rely on mere memorization to cope with their work.

Yes we need to keep earlier concepts and procedures alive by integrating them into problems in subsequent chapters, and yes students need to explore multiple uses and applications, and yes they need to use all of this to solve mathematical problems and not merely perform arithmetic calculations. I am not arguing against any of this. But enrichment is enriching and higher level mathematical reasoning is only reasoning when students have access to it. We should take as much pride in opening up and developing that next level of higher mathematical reasoning, whatever it may be, as we do in the creative, clever, complicated, and fun problems our mathematical minds conceive. We should remember what it’s like for those who are new to all of this. What is higher level mathematical reasoning for them?