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study guide: competing meanings

Transformational learning not only involves developing novel meanings, but it also entails coming to see those meanings are more productive and generative than prior meanings.


When working with teachers, whether prospective or practicing, we must face the insights gained from research on neuroplasticity and the habitualization of meanings/ways of thinking.


Place yourself in the following situation: in working with a teacher, you intend to support their developing of a particular meaning, M1. You determine that he holds meaning M2 and meaning M1 and M2 are disparate; M2 is not a foundational way of thinking for M1 and, in fact, can inhibit his construction of and ability to teach for M1. This raises the question: how do we engage with the teacher in a way that both honors M2 and affords constructing M1

There are numerous ways to approach this problem. Traditional approaches involve using tasks in which M2 is not relevant, but M1 is. Similarly, one might use tasks that target M1 through focused, closed-ended questions and design. Such tasks are useful to engender M1 and possibly draw connections with M2. Yet, such tasks can be so contrived as to feel too disjoint from the classroom for teachers. Or, such tasks leave a teacher perplexed as to the implications of M1 for their instruction in comparison to M2. Relatedly, such tasks only afford M1 and do not challenge M2 so that the former becomes their predominant or habitual meaning. With respect to teachers, for the tasks they envision teaching, M2 remains the predominant meaning because it is more familiar and "does work". A solution to this issue is to simultaneously target the two meanings in order to draw them into competition with each other. Hence, the name competing meanings.

In my work with teachers I often want to draw a rate of change meaning, M1, into competition with a shape-based, slope as direction or movement meaning, M2. In our work, we have found that M2 does not act as a sufficient springboard for the development and habitualization of M1. Said another way, M2 as derivative of or subordinate to M1 is more productive and generative than M1 as derivative of or subordinate to M2.

The two graphs presented above provide the source material for a task I've used to draw meanings into competition with each other. Here, I acknowledge that the competing meanings process above is typically cyclical and iterative across a number of tasks, but for the purpose of this study guide we'll keep things linear and simplified. The task is presented in two parts. The left graph is first provided, but without the axes-labels “x” and “y”. The teacher is told a student provided the graph (without labels) as a solution to graphing “= 3x”, and we ask them to consider how the student might have been thinking. After the teacher has exhausted the number of ways a student might have been thinking, they are presented the same graph but with variable labels. They are told a student clarified their solution and they are asked to comment on the graph, its accurateness, and how they would respond as a teacher. The right graph is created by most teachers during one of the phases. They create it by rotating the given graph to horizontally orient x.

The task incorporates the competing meanings perspective by using the following principles: (a) it sensibly affords M1 and M2; (b) the use of M2 likely produces a perturbation, but is still viewed as relevant to the task; (c) if M2 engenders a perturbation, M1 is a likely meaning for the student to use or develop; (d) the use of M1 will reconcile a perturbation stemming from M2; (e) due to different outcomes, the teacher can reflectively compare the affordances and constraints of each meaning; and, critically, (f) the teacher is likely to perceive the task and each as relevant to their instruction. Relating these task features to the competing meanings figure above, (a) and (b) involve problematizing an extant meaning; (a), (c), and (d) involve an accommodation via the enactment of an alternative meaning; and (b), (d), (e), and (f) support reflecting on and comparing extant and alternative meanings. The competing aspect of competing meanings is also apparent due to M1 and M2 resulting in different conclusions. With M2, the solution and its rotated version are inaccurate (e.g., the “slope” is wrong in its rise-run or direction). With M1, both are accurate (e.g., each is the set of points so that y is three times as large as x and for any change in x, y changes by three times that amount). This in-the-moment incompatibility is key to considering which meaning is better viewed as derivative of the other (e.g., slope as an implication of rate of change is more generative and generalizable than rate of change as an implication of slope).

At its foundation, competing meanings is about aiding teachers in separating what is critical to a mathematical idea from what is merely a product of representational practices and conventions. This requires their construction of meanings that enable them to do so. They must be confronted in a way that prompts them to critically analyze meanings in terms of their similarities, differences, affordances, and constraints.

… even though it looks like a negative slope…we call it slope because it’s visual and it’s easy to visualize a negative and positive slope. But that’s only visual on our conventions of how we set it up…slope is rate of change, we can still see that for like equal increases of x we have an equal increase of y of three. And so for equal positive increase of one we have an equal positive increase of three. And so, it is a positive slope.
It’s smart [of a student] to understand that it’s not glued.
Oh. It’s clever. We have a clever kid over here. OK, so it now technically is y equals three x…it’s just not the standard way of doing it…They see the relationship between x and y.

Further Reading


Moore, K. C., Silverman, J., Paoletti, T., Liss, D., & Musgrave, S. (2019). Conventions, habits, and U.S. teachers’ meanings for graphs. The Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 53, 179-195. 

Moore, K. C., Stevens, I. E., Paoletti, T., Hobson, N. L. F., & Liang, B. (2019). Pre-service teachers’ figurative and operative graphing actions. The Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 56. 

Moore, K. C., Liang, B., Stevens, I. E., Tasova, H. I., & Paoletti, T. (2022). Abstracted Quantitative Structures: Using Quantitative Reasoning to Define Concept Construction. In G. Karagöz Akar, İ. Ö. Zembat, S. Arslan, & P. W. Thompson (Eds.), Quantitative Reasoning in Mathematics and Science Education (pp. 35-69). Springer International Publishing. 

Moore, K. C., Stevens, I. E., Tasova, H. I., & Liang, B. (2024). Operationalizing figurative and operative framings of thought. In P. C. Dawkins, A. J. Hackenberg, & A. Norton (Eds.), Piaget’s Genetic Epistemology in Mathematics Education Research. Springer, Cham. 

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