On the Role of Mathematics in Explaining the Material World: Mental Models for Proportional Reasoning

Daniel L. Schwartz, Joyce L. Moore
1998 Cognitive Science  
Contemporary psychological research that studies how people apply mathematics has largely viewed mathematics as a computational tool for deriving an answer. The tacit assumption has been that people first understand a situation, and then choose which computations to apply. We examine an altemative assumption that mathematics can also serve OS a tool that helps one to construct an understanding of a situation in the first place. Three studies were conducted with 6th-grade children in the context
more » ... of proportional situations because early proportional reasoning is a premier example of where mathematics may provide new understanding of the world. The children predicted whether two differently-sized glasses of orange juice would taste the same when they were filled from a single carton of juice made from concentrate and water. To examine the relative contributions and interactions of situational and mathematical knowledge, we manipulated the formal features of the problem display (e.g., diagram vs. photograph) and the numerical complexity (e.g., divisibility) of the containers and the ingredient ratios. When the problem was presented as a diagram with complex numbers, or "realistically" with easy numbers, the children predicted the glasses would taste different because one glass had more juice than the other. But, when the problem was presented realistically with complex numbers, the children predicted the glasses would taste the same on the basis of empirical knowledge (e.g., "Juice can't change by itself"). And finally, when the problem was presented as a diagram with easy numbers, the children predicted the glasses would taste the same on the basis of proportional relations. These complex interactions illuminate how mathematical and empirical knowledge can jointly constrain the construction of a new understanding of the world. We propose that mathematics helped in the case of successful proportional reasoning because it made a complex empirical situation cognitively tractable, and thereby helped the children con-Direct all correspondence to: Daniel L. Schwartz, Deptartment of Psychology and Human Development, Box 512GPC, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN 37203; E-Mail: Dan.Schwartz@Vanderbilt.edu. 471 on the material world because it is used as a tool that makes a complex situation cognitively tractable, and thereby helps people construct mental models of that situation.
doi:10.1207/s15516709cog2204_3 fatcat:n76as67isjdcrbmbleqw6pimg4