Instructional Science

, Volume 37, Issue 4, pp 325–343 | Cite as

What’s the problem? Meaning making and learning to do mathematical word problems in the context of digital tools

  • Annika Lantz-AnderssonEmail author
  • Jonas Linderoth
  • Roger Säljö


The general background of this study is an interest in how digital tools contribute to structuring learning activities. The specific interest is to explore how such tools co-determine students’ reasoning when solving word problems in mathematics, and what kind of learning that follows. Theoretically the research takes its point of departure in a sociocultural perspective on the role of cultural tools in thinking, and in a complementary interest in the role of the communicative framing of cognitive activities. Data have been collected through video documentation of classroom activities in secondary schools where multimedia tools are integrated into mathematics teaching. The focus of the analysis is on cases where the students encounter some kind of difficulty. The results show how the tool to a significant degree co-determines the meaning making practices of students. Thus, it is not a passive element in the situation; rather it invites certain types of activities, for instance iterative computations that do not necessarily rely on an analysis of the problems to be solved. For long periods of time the students’ activities are framed within the context of the tool, and they do not engage in discussing mathematics at all when solving the problems. It is argued that both from a practical and theoretical point of view it is important to scrutinize what competences students develop when using tools of this kind.


Mathematics learning Word problems Problem solving Digital tools Multimedia tools 



The research reported has been funded by LearnIT, the research program on learning and ICT of the Knowledge (KK) foundation. The work has been carried out within the Linnaeus Centre for Research on Learning, Interaction and Mediated Communication in Contemporary Society (LinCS). This article was written while the third author was Finland Distinguished Professor at the University of Turku.


  1. Bishop, A., Clements, M., Keitel, C., Kilpatrick, J., & Leung, F. (Eds.). (2003). Second international handbook of mathematics education. Cornwall, Great Britain: Kluwer.Google Scholar
  2. Blumenfeld, P., Soloway, E., Marks, R., Krajcik, J., Guzdal, M., & Palincsar, A. (1991). Motivating project-based learning: Sustaining the doing, supporting the learning. Educational Psychologist, 26, 369–398.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Brosseau, G. (1997). Theory of didactical situations in mathematics. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer.Google Scholar
  4. Carpenter, T. P., Lindquist, M. M., Matthews, W., & Silver, E. A. (1983). Results of the third NAEP mathematics assessment: Secondary school. Mathematics Teacher, 76, 652–659.Google Scholar
  5. Goffman, E. (1986). Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Greeno, J. G., Collins, A., & Resnick, L. B. (1996). Cognition and learning. In D. C. Berliner & R. C. Calfee (Eds.), Handbook of educational psychology (pp. 15–46). London: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  7. Greer, B. (1993). The modeling perspective on wor(l)d problems. Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 12, 239–250.Google Scholar
  8. Griffin, P., Belyaeva, A., & Soldatova, G. (1993). Creating and reconstituting contexts for educational interactions, including a computer program. In E. A. Forman, N. Minick, & C. A. Stone (Eds.), Contexts for learning—sociocultural dynamics in children’s development. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.Google Scholar
  9. Guin, D., Ruthven, K., & Trouche, L. (Eds.) (2005). The didactical challenge of symbolic calculators. Turning a computational device into a mathematical instrument. New York, USA: Springer.Google Scholar
  10. Hatano, G., Miyake, Y., & Binks, M. G. (1977). Performance of expert abacus operators. Cognition, 5, 47–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Jordan, B., & Henderson, A. (1995). Interaction analysis: Foundations and practice. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 4, 39–103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Lafer, S., & Markert, A. (1994). Authentic learning situations and the potential of Lego TC Logo. Computers in the School, 1, 79–94.Google Scholar
  13. Lave, J. (1988). Cognition in practice: Mind, mathematics and culture in everyday life. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Linderoth, J. (2004). Datorspelandets mening: Bortom idén om den interaktiva illusionen. Goteborg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis.Google Scholar
  16. Luppinici, R. (2007). Review of computer mediated communication research for education. Instructional Science, 35, 141–185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Masalski, W. (Ed.) (2005). Technology-supported mathematics learning environments: Sixty-seventh yearbook. Reston, VA.: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.Google Scholar
  18. Miller, K. F., & Stigler, J. W. (1991). Meanings of skill: Effects of abacus expertise on number representation. Cognition and Instruction, 8, 29–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Nunes, T., Schliemann, A. D., & Carraher, D. W. (1993). Street mathematics and school mathematics. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Papert, S. (1993). The children’s machine. Basic Books: New York.Google Scholar
  21. Rogoff, B., & Lave, J. (Ed.). (1984). Everyday cognition: Its development in social context. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Ruthven, K. (2006). Embedding new technologies in complex ongoing practices of school mathematics Education. International Journal for Technology in Mathematics Education, 13, 161–167.Google Scholar
  23. Säljö, R., Eklund, A.-C., & Mäkitalo, Å. (2006). Reasoning with mental tools and physical artefacts in everyday problem solving. In L. Verschaffel, F. Dochy, M. Boekaerts, & S. Vosniadou (Eds.), Instructional psychology: Past, present and future trends (pp. 73–90). Oxford, England: Pergamon.Google Scholar
  24. Säljö, R., & Wyndhamn, J. (1988). A week has seven days. Or does it? On bridging linguistic openness and mathematical precision. For the Learning of Mathematics, 8, 16–19.Google Scholar
  25. Säljö, R., & Wyndhamn, J. (1993). Solving everyday problems in the formal setting. An empirical study of the school as context for thought. In S. Chaiklin & J. Lave (Eds.), Understanding practice. Perspectives on activity and context (pp. 327–342). Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Verschaffel, L., De Corte, E., & Lasure, S. (1994). Realistic considerations in mathematical modeling in the elementary school. Learning and Instruction, 4, 273–294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Verschaffel, L., Greer, B., & De Corte, E. (2000). Making sense of word problems. Lisse, The Netherlands: Swets & Zeitlinger.Google Scholar
  28. Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Wertsch, J. V. (1998). Mind as action. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Wyndhamn, J., & Säljö, R. (1997). Word problems and mathematical reasoning-a study of children’s mastery of reference and meaning in textual realities. Learning and Instruction, 7, 361–382.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Yoshida, H., Verschaffel, L., & De Corte, E. (1997). Realistic considerations in solving problematic word problems: Do Japanese and Belgian children have the same difficulties? Learning and Instruction, 7, 329–338.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Annika Lantz-Andersson
    • 1
    Email author
  • Jonas Linderoth
    • 1
  • Roger Säljö
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Education, LinCSGöteborg UniversityGoteborgSweden
  2. 2.Centre for Learning Research, Faculty of EducationUniversity of TurkuTurkuFinland

Personalised recommendations