Substantive Knowledge and Mindful Use of Logarithms: A Conceptual Analysis for Mathematics Educators

Article excerpt


This study uses concept mapping to investigate the logarithm. Empirical evidence documents the extent to which selected instructors and students command substantive knowledge about logarithms and analyzes their ability to make mindful use of their current understanding. Initial mapping reflects inadequacy and provides the basis for an in-depth search of the cultural and historical context that gave rise to the logarithm concept. The author presents a map that incorporates the essence of the concept from a cultural historical perspective as its central structure. This key ideational relationship, the conceptual cross link between arithmetic and geometric sequences discovered by John Napier, precisely identifies the source of weakness in conceptualization empirically evidenced among faculty and students. The improved map visually provides the understanding necessary for corrective intervention and is the prime reference in the development of a pedagogical approach toward more substantive knowledge and mindful use of the logarithm concept. Study results indicate that concept mapping can provide an epistemological tool for sound curricular and instructional development in mathematics education; one that seeks to locate and build on the essence of conceptual foundations. In a scientific discipline, graphically rendering such substantive cognitive structures maximizes the probability of their mindful use in related mathematical reasoning.


Mindful use of an important mathematical concept necessitates substantive knowledge, knowledge that extends well beyond the rote acquisition of standard mathematical procedures. Inversely, mindless use usually involves weak or nonexistent conscious awareness of purpose or meaning involved in activity. Langer (1989) suggests that such mindlessness may be rooted in the development of automatic behavior through repetition and practice. Premature cognitive commitment on the part of the learner, a commitment to an early understanding that lacks the full development that can be achieved through thoughtful contemplation and study of the underlying concepts involved from a historical perspective, may also be the cause. Mindlessness can be induced by organizations with an orientation focused on outcomes, with minor attention given to conceptualization and a focused dependency on rote learning.

Substantive knowledge refers to knowledge that reveals the essence of the concept in question. This notion necessarily avoids the misconception that the cultural historical context which gives rise to an idea, especially a mathematical concept, is of little importance in the development of a deep understanding of that idea. On the contrary, substantive knowledge is grounded in such considerations. An intellectual dedication to a continual search for new and deeper understanding, relating new conceptualizations to current knowledge, may be dependent upon the purity of initial substantive knowledge. Subsequent thought and study is then more likely to locate conceptual cross links, and may, over time, lead to the emergence of mental models that reflect the essence of the original idea.

Concept Mapping and Historical Research as a Combined Epistemological Tool

Concept mapping is at the heart of this study. Investigations of four types: a historical search, a conceptual analysis, clinical research involving mathematics teachers and their students, and the development of a curricular approach to logarithms that address the historical and cultural foundation of this mathematical concept was constructively informed and guided by mapping. The logarithm is a concept whose understanding must be mediated by knowledgeable and skillful instruction to be well understood. Results of the clinical component of the study provide evidence of the need for conceptual intervention through improved curriculum design based on concept mapping and historical research as a combined epistemological tool. …


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