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J Math Didakt (2016) Suppl 1:33–67

DOI 10.1007/s13138-016-0102-8


Specifying and Structuring Mathematical Topics

A Four-Level Approach for Combining Formal, Semantic,
Concrete, and Empirical Levels Exemplified for Exponential

Stephan Hußmann · Susanne Prediger

Received: 26 May 2015 / Accepted: 26 May 2016 / Published online: 30 June 2016
© GDM 2016

Abstract This article presents our four-level approach for specifying and structur-
ing mathematical learning content developed within the research program of topic-
specific design research. We understand this approach as an extension of classic
“didactical analysis of subject matters,” following the tradition of Stoffdidaktik and
extending it by combination with an empirical component. For the exemplarily
chosen topic of exponential growth, we illustrate why specifying and structuring
along the four-level approach is a constructive and creative work rather than a pure
analysis. We discuss the mostly theoretical work of classic didactical analysis of
subject matters on the formal, semantic, and concrete levels and analyze the con-
nections between these levels and the empirical level. With the four-level approach,
we emphasize the need for including empirical investigations since they can enrich
the process of specifying and structuring mathematical topics.

Keywords Specifying and structuring content · Combining subject matter

didactics with empirical investigation · Exponential function · Students’
conceptions and learning processes · Design research

MESC Codes C30 · D30 · I20

Spezifizierung und Strukturierung mathematischer Lerngegenstände

Ein Vier-Stufen-Ansatz zur Kombination der formalen, semantischen, konkreten und
empirischen Ebene am Beispiel des exponentiellen Wachstums

S. Hußmann () · S. Prediger

Institute for Development and Research in Mathematics Education, TU Dortmund University,
44221 Dortmund, Germany

S34 S. Hußmann, S. Prediger

Zusammenfassung Im vorliegenden Beitrag wird der Vier-Stufen-Ansatz zu Spe-

zifizierung und Strukturierung mathematischer Lerninhalte dargestellt, der innerhalb
des Forschungsprogramms zum gegenstandspezifischen Unterrichtsdesign entwi-
ckelt wurde (Forschungsprogramm der Fachdidaktischen Entwicklungsforschung).
Die Autoren verstehen diesen Ansatz als Ausweitung der klassischen „didaktischen
Analyse der Lerninhalte“ in der Tradition der Stoffdidaktik und ergänzen ihn durch
Kombination mit einer empirischen Komponente. Für das beispielhaft gewählte The-
ma des exponentiellen Wachstums wird veranschaulicht, warum die Spezifizierung
und Strukturierung anhand des Vier-Stufen-Ansatzes eher eine konstruktive und
kreative Tätigkeit ist als eine reine Analyse. Der überwiegend theroretische An-
satz der klassischen didaktischen Analyse von Unterrichtsstoff wird auf formaler,
semantischer und konkreter Ebene erörtert und die Zusammenhänge zwischen die-
sen Ebenen und der empirischen Ebene ausgewertet. Im Rahmen des Vier-Stufen-
Ansatzes betonen die Autoren die Notwendigkeit, auch empirische Untersuchun-
gen einfließen zu lassen, da diese den Prozess des Spezifizierens und Strukturierens
mathematischer Inhalte bereichern können.
The master question from which the mission of education is derived is: what
should be taught to whom, and with what pedagogical object[ive] in mind?
[...] education research [...] becomes [...] design research in the sense that
it explores possible ways in which educational objectives can be formulated
[...] even the task of setting the goals of education requires careful research.
(Bruner 1999, p. 408)
Traditionally, German Didaktik of mathematics (and of course similar traditions
in other countries) has always been concerned with (a) setting goals and “preparing
mathematics for students,” including “the choosing, preparing and evaluating math-
ematical topics for teaching purposes” and with (b) describing and methodologically
reflecting on “the whole process of reorganizing mathematical knowledge for the
purpose of schools” (Winkelmann 1994, p. 11; cf. also Sträßer 1996; and many oth-
ers). This area of work has been called didactical analysis (also in general education,
cf. Klafki 1958), or didactically oriented subject matter analysis (Griesel 1974), al-
though the agents were aware that, rather than being only analytical, their work
had many constructive parts when restructuring mathematical topics for didactical
Although some researchers complained that the didactical analysis was no longer
part of current research projects (e. g. Reichel 1995; Jahnke 1998), this article
intends to show that the work of choosing and preparing topics is certainly still
highly relevant for mathematics education research, for example, in many design
studies or design research studies.
In this article, we present one approach (among others) of the didactics of mathe-
matics for specifying and structuring mathematical topics, i. e., identifying relevant
aspects and perspectives (briefly, specifying), and putting them into relations and
in a chronological order offered to students in teaching units (structuring). Our
four-level approach comprises the formal, semantic, concrete, and empirical levels,
which are not considered as hierarchical. It draws upon well-established didactical
constructs, and it transcends them by (1) the systematic interplay of the formal, se-

Specifying and Structuring Mathematical Topics S35

mantic, and concrete level (also addressed in other approaches), and by (2) including
an empirical level in a specific way. Especially the findings on the empirical level
illustrate the specificity of this approach for a substantial subject-matter analysis.
The article is addressed to all researchers and designers interested in theoretically
and empirically based work on mathematical topics and their design in learning
arrangements, discussed with references to contemporary versions of the German
Didaktik tradition, inside and outside Germany.
To present our four-level approach to what we call “specifying and structuring
content,” we choose an inductive structure from the concrete to the general: We start
with questions that have to be answered to prepare content for teaching–learning
arrangements (in Sect. 1) and then illustrate the approach for the exemplary content
of exponential growth (in Sect. 2). These concrete approximations will then allow
us to discuss the approach in general, drawing on its historical origins in the Ger-
man-speaking mathematics education tradition and to present some methodological
reflections (in Sect. 3).
By presenting the four-level approach, we intend to synthesize complementary
research traditions that were formerly discussed as antithetic or at least left uncon-

1 Central Questions for Specifying and Structuring Topics in Design


In our approach, the term “specifying the content” defines the process of identifying
relevant learning goals and content aspects (including underlying ideas, basic mental
models and representations, typical obstacles, but also questions of relevance). By
the term “structuring the content,” we mean connecting these identified aspects in
a network of internal relations and preparing a suitable intended learning trajectory
as an intended progression through the specified aspects with specific attention to
the connecting points for long-term learning processes (not in the narrow sense of
Simon 1995, as will be made explicit in Sect. 3). In this sense, our four-level
approach draws upon several well-established categories, theoretical elements, and
approaches, and combines them systematically by explaining how they are related
in a more general structure of four levels. By iteratively combining these levels, the
learning trajectory is elaborated.

1.1 Combining Typical Questions on Four Levels

How can a researcher or designer decide on what exactly students have to learn
about a specific mathematical topic (specifying), how these elements are inherently
connected, and how they should be structured in a learning trajectory (structuring)?
These big questions can be operationalized by typical smaller questions, which we
arrange systematically on the following four (nonhierarchical) levels:
● The formal level (addressing the mathematical objects and phenomena in their
formal presentation and their logical structure)

S36 S. Hußmann, S. Prediger

Table 1 Typical questions on four levels for specifying and structuring the content (without assuming
completenessa )
Specifying the content (selecting Structuring the content (relating and sequencing
aspects and their backgrounds) aspects, including connecting points for long-term
Formal Which concepts and theorems have How can the concepts, theorems, justifications,
level to be acquired? and procedures be structured in logical trajecto-
Which procedures have to be ac- ries? Which connections are crucial, which are
quired, and how are they justified contingent?
formally? How can the network between concepts, theorems,
justifications, and procedures be elaborated?
Semantic What are the underlying big ideas How do the underlying ideas and meanings relate
level behind the concepts, theorems, and to each other and to earlier and later learning
procedures? contents?
Which basic mental models and How can the meanings be successively con-
(graphical, verbal, numerical, and structed by horizontal mathematization in the
algebraic) representations are cru- intended learning trajectories?
cial for constructing meaning? Which trajectories of vertical mathematization
have to be elicited in order to initiate the inven-
tion/discovery of core ideas, concepts, theorems,
and procedures?
How can the intended learning trajectories be
sequenced with respect to the logical structure?
Concrete Which core questions and core How can the meanings be successively con-
level ideas can guide the development of structed in situations in the intended learning
the concepts, theorems, and proce- trajectories?
dures? How can the intended learning trajectories be
In which context situations and by sequenced with respect to the problem structure?
which problems can the core ques- Which trajectories of horizontal mathematization
tions and ideas be treated exemplar- have to be elicited in order to initiate the inven-
ily for re-inventing the content? tion/discovery of core ideas, concepts, theorems,
and procedures?
Empirical Which typical individual perspec- Which critical points in students’ learning path-
level tives of students (conceptions, ideas, ways are most crucial (obstacles, turning points,
knowledge, etc.) can be expected? etc.)?
How do they relate to the intended Which typical preconceptions or previous knowl-
perspectives (resources vs. obsta- edge can serve as fruitful starting points?
cles)? How can the intended learning trajectory be re-
What are origins of typical obstacles sequenced with respect to students’ starting points
or idiosyncratic conceptions? and obstacles?
Questions in regular font are not relevant in the example of Sect. 21

1 We use the following translations of technical terms (being defined and refered to literature in Sect. 3):

big ideas = fundamentale Ideen (Bruner 1960; Schweiger 2006), basic mental models = Grundvorstellun-
gen (vom Hofe 1998), core questions and ideas = Kernfragen und -ideen (Gallin and Ruf 1990; Leuders
et al. 2011), intended learning trajectory = intendierter Lernpfad, individual learning pathway = indi-
vidueller Lernweg (Confrey 2006; Simon 1995), vertical and horizontal mathematization = vertikale und
horizontale Mathematisierung (Treffers 1987).

Specifying and Structuring Mathematical Topics S37

● The semantic level (addressing sense and meanings – e. g. by big ideas and
basic mental models – of the mathematical topic to be learnt and epistemological
aspects of the structure between them)
● The concrete level (addressing the realization of the teaching learning arrange-
ment by core ideas, problems, and situations, in which the mathematical knowl-
edge is relevant and could be constructed in a generic way)
● The empirical level (addressing cognitive and possibly social aspects of student
thinking, typical resources, pathways, and obstacles)

Our four-level approach is embedded in design research. Within this methodol-

ogy, this article intends to describe concretely the interplay of the four levels. The
four levels are explained in a first stance by typical questions listed in Table 1, and
then inductively introduced by an example from a design research project. These
concrete illustrations will later allow us to define and treat the levels more systemati-
cally and to relate the theoretical constructs to a wider range of literature. Especially,
we will argue why considering one or two of them is not enough for specifying and
structuring the intended learning trajectories, not as a unidirectional highway, but
as a landscape in which different students’ learning pathways will vary (Prediger
et al. 2015). These questions are directed to designers and researchers, whereas
textbook writers and teachers will have to add further questions on the concrete
tasks, activities and classroom pedagogy.
The fact that nearly none of these questions has a simple and unique answer
already gives us the first hint that the four-level approach cannot offer a simple
method with recipes to securely reach a good specification and structure. But the
questions can support a complex process and the navigation between the four levels
allows for a higher transparency within an important area of didactical work.
Most of these questions have emerged in the German Didaktik tradition and
elsewhere in the world and were activated by different authors, even if rarely treated
in their relationship to each other. Section 3 will elaborate on these traditions and
the new aspects we add to them by their intertwinement. Hence, in this article, we
intend to synthesize different approaches and show why the questions and levels
should be considered together owing to their mutual impact on each other (cf.
Prediger et al. 2008) for the methodological method of synthesizing (complementary,
but not contradictory) approaches. The synthesis allows for a more detailed and
complex approach. This offers another approach to the “what question” (van den
Heuvel-Panhuizen 2005), and we will argue why we believe it should be extended

1.2 Iterative Design Research Cycles as an Approach to Answering the


Whereas the questions on the formal level can be treated completely theoretically,
the questions on the other three levels are treated in iterative design research cycles
because they can profit from an empirical investigation of learning processes. For
this purpose, we have chosen one out of many design research approaches (cf. Cobb
et al. 2003; Plomp and Nieveen 2013; van den Akker et al. 2006 for overviews),

S38 S. Hußmann, S. Prediger

Fig. 1 Working areas in topic-specific didactical design research (Prediger et al. 2012, English version in
Prediger and Zwetzschler 2013)

namely, the framework of design research in the learning perspective (Gravemeijer

and Cobb 2006; Prediger et al. 2015). In our research group, we have elaborated
it into a framework for topic-specific design research (cf. Fig. 1). Specific for
the concrete framework is the simultaneous focus on the content and on learning
processes. A content focus does not mean only the identification of the optimal
order of predefined topics with respect to formal and semantic aspects, but also
their restructuring based on the empirical analysis that is focused on individual
(and socially contextualized) learning processes. In this article we elaborate on the
mutual dependency of these formal, semantic, concrete, and empirical views on
content when developing opportunities to learn in a design research approach. We
will not discuss the whole design research methodology as such (for the general
framework, cf. Hußmann et al. 2013; Prediger and Zwetzschler 2013).
It is necessary to preliminarily specify and structure the content for designing
a teaching–learning arrangement that realizes the intended learning trajectory by
a sequence of activities with suitable learning aids. The empirical findings from
conducting and analyzing the design experiments can give hints (on the empirical
level) on how to refine the decisions on the semantic and concrete levels and hence
to expand the local theories on specifying and structuring the learning content. This
allows the intended learning trajectories to be adjusted and the teaching–learning
arrangement to be further elaborated. By several cycles of experimenting and theory
building, the process of specifying and structuring the learning content is succes-
sively iterated.
In this way, the four-level approach of specifying and structuring is embedded in
the framework of topic-specific design research. Before explaining the connections
and complementarities of the levels in detail (in Sect. 3), Sect. 2 illustrates this
approach for the exemplary topic of exponential growth and specifically illuminates
the added value of combining the four levels systematically.

Specifying and Structuring Mathematical Topics S39

2 Illustrating the Approach for the Exemplary Topic of Exponential


Our choice of exponential growth as an exemplary content was triggered by a design

research project conducted together with one of our PhD students (Thiel-Schneider,
in preparation) and by a pertinent article (Kirsch 1977), which gives an excellent
example of classic didactical analysis (and restructuring) in a wide sense. The
topic of exponential growth is still of great interest because of its role in upper
secondary mathematics: According to the German curriculum, it is introduced in
grades 9/10 (14–16-year-old students), builds upon lower secondary school functions
and functional thinking, and initiates the transition to calculus in upper secondary
mathematics; hence, it requires a long-term perspective.
This section presents selected aspects of exponential growth. It is not our aim
to discuss the topic exhaustively, but to offer an exemplary illustration of our four-
level approach for specifying and structuring contents. Therefore, we restrict the
discussion here to relevant characterizing properties of exponential growth functions
f ∶ N → R+ , f (x) = a ⋅ b x with a, b ∈ R+ and 1 ≤ b. We do not discuss later steps
in the learning trajectory, involving exponential growth functions f ∶ R → R, also
with negative or rational exponents, bases smaller than 1, and the arithmetic laws
for exponential growth.
The main aim of the approach is to answer the major questions raised by Bruner
in the opening quotation and more specifically the following questions: How can we
identify the relevant aspects of a topic? How can we structure them in one or more
sustainable intended learning trajectories, together with suitable context situations,
core ideas, and problems? In Sect. 2.1, we analyze the content on the formal and
semantic levels in order to show how they inform each other. Sect. 2.2 combines
these levels with the concrete level, and finally, Sect. 2.3 presents the relevance of
the empirical level and its influence on the semantic and concrete levels.

2.1 Specifying and Structuring Formal and Semantic Aspects for Exponential

Specifying the content exponential growth on the semantic level comprises identi-
fying the underlying big ideas, basic mental models, and representations, which are
crucial for the meaning of the characterizations of exponential growth. In this arti-
cle, we discuss the basic mental models and representations in particular and show
their correspondence to the formal level for structuring their logical connections. Of
course, clarifying the logical structure of characterizations on the formal level does
not imply that students are confronted with their symbolic representation. However,
it yields the logical skeleton of the learning trajectories.
Mainly, three dichotomies of basic mental models are discussed in the literature
on exponential growth (Confrey and Smith 1995; Weber 2002; Thompson 2011;
Castillow-Garsow 2012), which will be briefly specified with respect to their char-
acteristics, useful representations, and benefits for constructing meanings:

S40 S. Hußmann, S. Prediger

● (M1): Covariation versus correspondence models

● (M2): Discrete versus continuous models
● (M3): Additive versus multiplicative models.

2.1.1 (M1) Covariation and Correspondence Models for Exponential Growth

Traditionally, two (or three) models for functions are distinguished (Vollrath 1989;
Confrey and Smith 1995; Dubinsky and Harel 1992; Malle 2000):
● The correspondence perspective on functions draws attention to a mapping from
one set to another. In this perspective, y = f(x) describes a fixed relationship, in
which every value of x is associated with a unique value of y.
● The covariation perspective focuses on the way that two varying quantities change
● The holistic perspective on the function as a whole is also emphasized by Vollrath
(1989), but it is not focused on here.
For a comprehensive understanding of exponential growth, the covariation per-
spective is of high priority, because the quality of covariation forms the central
characteristic of exponential growth (Confrey and Smith 1994). This resonates with
the underlying big ideas on functions as describing and predicting processes and
changes (cf. Schweiger 2006 for an overview on big ideas).
This semantic priority also informs choices on the formal level, when selecting the
starting point among three formal characterizations of exponential growth (Kirsch
(C1) The function f ∶ N → R+ is exponential, if and only if for each d ∈ N, there
exists λ ∈ R+ with f (x + d) = λ ⋅ f (x) for all x ∈ N.
(C2) The function f ∶ N → R+ is exponential, if and only if for each d ∈ N, there
exists k ∈ R, k > –1 with f (x + d) − f (x) = k ⋅ f (x) for all x ∈ N.
(C3) The function f ∶ N → R+ is exponential, if and only if there exist a, b ∈ R+
with f (x) = a ⋅ b x for all x ∈ N.
These three candidates for a definition can be proven to be logically equivalent.
However, there are different semantic priorities: In the correspondence perspective,
it is central to build a rule for calculating y-values from given x-values, which is
facilitated symbolically in the nonrecursive characterization C3. However, knowing
the calculation rule is not enough to understand exponential growth (Castillo-Garsow
2012). When semantically prioritizing the covariation perspective, C1 and C2 are
the preferred characteristics as they highlight how one quantity varies with the other.
As all three characterizations are logically equivalent (with setting λ = 1 + k = b d
and f (x) = f (0) ⋅ b x for all x), each logical trajectory is theoretically possible.
So far, it seems that the distinction in C1 and C2 makes no sense, because C1 can
easily be transformed to C2, or vice versa, but it is justified by other dichotomies of
models, namely, (M2) and (M3).

Specifying and Structuring Mathematical Topics S41

2.1.2 (M2) Discrete Versus Continuous Models

When considering exponential growth, continuous models (with f ∶ R → R) must be

distinguished from discrete models ( f ∶ N → R+ ). This article focuses on discrete
models; however, the developed learning trajectories should be generalizable to the
continuous case in which the differences between C1 and C2 are bigger.
The first reason for starting solely with discrete models is that the covariation
properties of discrete exponential growth are expected to be more easily understood
than in continuous models, because the constant growth pattern becomes better
visible when comparing discrete points. Secondly, many contexts for exponential
growth are time-dependent (see epistemological level in Sect. 2.2), and reasoning in
time units can be interpreted by discrete reasoning: Every change of state involves
a variation in fixed units of time, disregarding whether anything happens within the
time period. If, for instance, an object doubles every week, it is not important what
happened in between. Discrete reasoning is based on thinking in steps and/or in
time units.
The later extension to continuous thinking then requires understanding exponen-
tial growth inside the (e. g. time) units, which can be initiated by changing the size of
units, e. g. halving weeks or asking for days. Castillow-Garsow (2012) named this
kind of thinking “chunky thinking,” as opposed “smooth thinking.” “Chunky think-
ing is inherently discrete. It remains an open question whether or not continuous
thinking can be built from pure chunky thinking” (ibid, p. 11).

2.1.3 (M3) Additive and Multiplicative Models for Exponential Growth

The distinction between C1 and C2 is mainly required for representing two models
for grasping the constant change:
f (x+d)
1. The multiplicative change: f (x) = λ. A multiplicative change is defined by
the quotient of two functions’ values for a constant change of arguments. For
exponential growth, this multiplicative change is constant. From step to step, the
function values are multiplied with the same factor.
2. The proportionally additive change: f (x +d)− f (x) = k⋅ f (x). An additive change
refers to the differences between the function values for a constant change of the
arguments. This additive change is proportional to the function value or, in other
words, the additive change is a percentage change. From step to step, we add
a value that is proportional to the previous function value.
These characterizations of different types of changes are powerful for under-
standing exponential growth, and they correspond to C1 and C2. Additionally, for
d = 1 it becomes obvious that proportionally additive change can be understood as
percentage change, because the k in C2 may be interpreted as the percentage p in
compound interest contexts. To make these subtle semantic differences transparent
on the formal level, they can be formulated by the formal characterizations C1p to
C3p, where we use d = 1 to get the percentage p instead of k, which is more difficult
to interpret (cf. Sect. 2.2).

S42 S. Hußmann, S. Prediger

Fig. 2 Proportionally additive

model: same unit, same propor- x y Change
tion added (plus 40 %) 1 1
+0.4 +40%
2 1.4
+0.56 +40%
3 1.96
+0.784 +40%
4 2.744

f (x + 1) = b ⋅ f (x) with b = 1 + p and p ∈ R+ (1)

f (x + 1) − f (x) = p ⋅ f (x) (2)
f (x) = a ⋅ (1 + p)x with a, p ∈ R+ (3)
On the formal level, presenting the characterizations with p and b = 1 + p allows
us to see immediately the equivalence between the multiplicative change in C1p and
the proportionally additive change in C2p. From the characterizations C1p, and C2p,
we derive the theorem

f (n + k) = f (n) ⋅ (1 + p) k with n, k ∈ N, p ∈ R+ (4)

and from it C3p. However, first it is worth including considerations on possible

difficulties for the students: The use of 1 + p instead of b could cause difficulties
in computations. Furthermore, the growth factor in C3p is now a sum and the
growth rate in C2p is part of the sum. This might pose obstacles in understanding
C2, as misinterpretations could result in the wrong individual theorems such as
First, increase by p%, then q%, corresponding to f (n) = a ⋅ (1 + p + q)n ”. These
considerations resonate with findings on the empirical level (cf. Sect. 2.3 and Thiel-
Schneider, in preparation) that the distinction between the multiplicative and the
proportionally additive change is a central challenge for students.
This raises a question with respect to structuring on the semantic level, namely,
about the compatibility with previous conceptions of addition and multiplication.
With a proportionally additive characterization, the change in exponential growth
is interpreted additively where for every unit of x a proportional value of y is added.
For example, in the context situation of compound interest, “For every year, the
capital increases by a constant change of +40 %.” Repeated addition here does not
refer to adding an identical value, but to adding the same proportion of f (x), hence
f (x + 1) = f (x) + p ⋅ f (x). Confrey and Smith (1994) call this model “proportional
new-to-old,” distinguishing it from the constantly additive model for linear functions,
in which for every time unit, an identical value is added.
The proportionally additive model can be represented by tables with additive
changes or by graphs with increasing gradient triangles (Fig. 2). In both representa-
tions, students have to distinguish between the constant proportional rate p and the
variable additive changes resulting when a constant percentage refers to changing
referent wholes.

Specifying and Structuring Mathematical Topics S43

On the formal level, this view on exponential growth is related to the charac-
terization C2p and requires recursive thinking. Although the restriction of C2p to
percentage has its limits, this interpretation is important on the empirical level as
considering growth processes recursively seems natural and leads to proportionally
additive models (Confrey 1991). For instance, if students work with successive
values in tables or sequences, they often start by calculating the differences between
the values (Confrey and Smith 1994, p. 140).
However, this interpretation might hinder the view on the multiplicative change
as the expression (1 + p) “sits squarely between an additive and multiplicative
treatment of rate” (Confrey and Smith 1994, p. 141). These possible obstacles are
compounded by ambiguities in the use of language: If a capital of C 100 increases
300 % per annum, this could mean that C 100 becomes C 300 and the increase is
C 200, but also that C 100 becomes C 400 and the increase is C 300.
In contrast to the proportionally additive model, exponential growth can also be
characterized in a multiplicative way, where for every unit, the old value is multiplied
with the same growth factor, as expressed in particular in C1: f (x + d) = λ ⋅ f (x).
This multiplicative characterization can be interpreted by several potential models,
depending on the underlying model for multiplication with numbers (as repeated
addition, as area model, as scaling, or as splitting). This article is restricted to the
scaling model. It is closely linked to activities like stretching, zooming, projecting,
or dropping shadows. By focusing on the similarity of units, multiplication and
division are closely related in this model: “⋅ 9” means scaling up nine times, “: 9”
scaling down. Suitable representations for the scaling model are primarily iconic
representations, whose measurements are represented as numbers.
However, there is also a restriction in the scaling model: Whereas it offers a good
approach to the multiplicative characteristics, it does not help to give meaning
to proportionally additive change processes. For this purpose, the powers of b
are interpreted as repeated multiplication in the sense of repeated scaling: “9 ⋅ 9 ⋅
9” means that different units have to be multiplied in every step of the repeated
multiplication: starting with 9 units, multiplying 9 times 9 units, then multiplying
9 times 81 units, etc. It emphasizes the constant multiplicative rate of exponential
growth and could guide the way to the algebraic expression (C3, C3p, Tp).
The discussion of additive and multiplicative models with their representations
provides as orientation for the structuring the intended learning trajectory on the
semantic level: Whereas the formal level allows for every order of characterizations,
the semantic level prioritizes starting with the proportionally additive change (as it is
nearer to students’ previous experiences), and then proceeding to the multiplicative
change from which the explicit formula C3 or Tp can be derived.
These reflections show that considerations on the semantic level can be informed
by previous empirical research (e. g. Confrey’s 1991 or Confrey’s and Smith’s 1994
empirically specified dichotomies of models) or theoretically derived or empirically
grounded hypotheses. Furthermore, we include aspects on the empirical level
stemming from our own research or from studies that have not been theorized into
a general pattern.

S44 S. Hußmann, S. Prediger

Fig. 3 Intended learning trajectory

2.1.4 Selection of Main Representations

These decisions also influence the selection of representations. In principle, the

following representations are useful for constructing meanings for functions:
● (R1): Numerical representation: data table
● (R2): Diagrammatic representation: graphs and bars
● (R3): Symbolic representation: equations
● (R4): Verbal descriptions (discussed mainly in Sect. 2.2 together with the context
Following the decisions taken on the formal and semantic levels (starting with
a discrete model in the covariation perspective and the proportionally additive change
model), the numerical representation in tables plays the key role. Creating tables
of data can often serve as a point of entry for understanding functions (Confrey
1993; Confrey and Smith 1995, p. 78). Coordinating (pairs of) values in two
different columns in order to find patterns gives a discrete, covariation approach to
the students for exploring changes easily, as proportionally additive change and as
multiplicative change.
The results of specifying and structuring on the formal and semantic levels are
combined in the beginning of an intended learning trajectory as depicted in Fig. 3.
The first column in the figure presents the formal structure of the characteriza-
tions, the second column the intended models, and the third column the preferred
representation with paradigmatic example situations.

2.2 Specifying and Structuring Concrete Aspects for Exponential Growth

The central questions for specifying and structuring the content on the concrete level
are (cf. Table 1):

Specifying and Structuring Mathematical Topics S45

● Which core questions and core ideas (Kernfragen und Kernideen) can guide the
development of the concepts, theorems, and procedures?
● In which context situations and by which problems can the core questions and
ideas be treated exemplarily for re-inventing the content?
● Which trajectories of horizontal and vertical mathematization have to be elicited
in order to initiate the invention/discovery of core ideas, concepts, theorems, and

Core questions lead the students toward the big ideas and the meanings of con-
cepts. Core questions for handling functions are: How do we describe how two
quantities change with each other and how do we calculate further values? When
the context situations are characterized by constant additive changes (e. g. tar-
iffs), linear functions provide an adequate model for grasping them. In many other
context situations (e. g. bacterial growth, compound interest, chessboard problem,
decay or cooling processes; cf. Davis 2009; Weber 2002), exponential functions
provide the more suitable models. For the students’ horizontal mathematization
process, a context should carry the aforementioned characteristics. Our selection
of context situations is therefore guided by their purpose to offer opportunities to
construct meaningful relationships between quantities, where a focus on proportion-
ally additive change would arise naturally, in discrete situations with a covariation
perspective. Hence, time-dependent context situations are suitable. Furthermore, the
context has to offer the possibility to extend students’ initial linear thinking (focus-
ing on constant additive change) to exponential thinking (focusing on proportionally
additive change). Tables are chosen as the first representation, although the constant
difference is easier to discover therein than the proportionally additive change. The
selection of a supportive context is hence required for giving reasons for exploring
the proportionally additive change. Describing changes with percentages (C1p–C3p)
can additionally be assumed to support students’ discovery of proportionally additive
We select the context of compound interest because it satisfies four requirements.
First, situations of compound interest are discrete, but it is possible to chop given
chunks (i. e., years) into smaller ones (months, weeks, days) for generalizing to
continuous situations later. Second, compound interest situations are paradigmatic
for the characteristics C1p–C3p and open the proportionally additive change model
because interest is added up to an amount, whereby the interest depends on the
certain amount. Furthermore, the percentage growth could be conceptualized as a
growth factor in the sense of C1. Here, situations must be added where amounts
are doubled or tripled. Third, with this approach students can activate previous
experiences with percentages, calculating first in different individual steps and then
connecting them to one step over several time units. And finally, the context of
compound interest is a context where the aforementioned core questions (How do
we describe how two quantities change with each other and how do we calculate
further values?) naturally arise.
The last two requirements are crucial for overcoming a pure additive view on
absolute differences. We assume that the context of compound interest helps to
focus the attention on the proportional change p ⋅ f (x) rather than on its absolute

S46 S. Hußmann, S. Prediger

change. The shift to the multiplicative change could be successful by calculating

the new capital in one step.
The question regarding the role of the trajectories of horizontal and vertical
mathematization in initiating the invention/discovery of core ideas and main concepts
is already partly answered: The first steps in the learning process are organized as
horizontal mathematization, i. e., as developing mathematical concepts in emergent
(visual) models (such as graphical representations, situations in realizable contexts,
diagrams; cf. Treffers 1987). The context of compound interest invites the guided
re-invention of a covariation perspective on discrete exponential growth processes
and extends the initial linear thinking to discovering the proportionally additive
changes. Having found this horizontal mathematization, further steps of vertical
mathematization (here concrete generalization and algebraization; cf. Treffers 1987)
are required in order to find the algebraic formula C3p and to extend the scope to
growth factors greater than 2. The step is guided by vertical generalization questions
(e. g.: Does the formula work for all rational numbers?) and their re-interpretation
in the context situation (e. g.: Which meaning does the “new” formula have in the
context, for example, does it make sense to separate an arbitrary growth factor in 1 +
p?). Further decisions on the semantic and concrete level are taken with reference
to the empirical level.
Thus, the intended learning trajectory starts with the characterizations C2p, then
C1p and C3p (see Fig. 3). We first restrict p to 0 ≤ p < 1, because it offers an easier
access than using growth factors like 2.3 (for which the representation 2.3 = 1 + 1.3
is not obvious, especially in the context of compound interest) and it is a typical
restriction for the context of compound interest. The step from C3p to C3 is most
straightforward in the correspondence perspective when only the scope of the growth
factor has to be extended. Subsequently, covariation will be discussed for this new
scope in C1. In the third column in Fig. 3, typical mathematical activities for the
certain characterization are illustrated exemplarily in the chosen representation. The
fourth column displays selected context problems.
The structure of the learning trajectory is one among several possibilities for
fostering a multifaceted understanding of exponential growth. Its linear structure
is of course an idealized offer of learning opportunities, whereas each individual
student’s learning pathway deviates from the trajectory, taking steps forward and
backward or effecting deviations or abbreviations (cf. Confrey 2006 for the role of
learning trajectories as wider conceptual corridors).
The specific learning trajectory in Fig. 3 is in some respects similar to common
introductions to exponential growth, but there are, however, significant differences.
Most of the common introductions use time-dependent contexts as in the current
case. But, frequently, contexts with an integer growth factor are preferred, e. g. decay
processes, bacterial growth, or rice grains on a chessboard (Davis 2009; Weber 2002;
Ellis et al. 2012; Castillo-Garsow 2012; Thompson 2011). Whereas the context
of compound interest is often the second context in these learning trajectories, our
learning trajectory starts by percentage growth factors and then goes to contexts with
integer growth factor. This order is promising for offering a broader view on integer
growth factors in additive and multiplicative models. Furthermore, our learning
trajectory starts in a covariation perspective before shifting to the correspondence

Specifying and Structuring Mathematical Topics S47

perspective and discovering the explicit formula, whereas most trajectories present
the explicit formula quickly after a brief contextual introduction. The relevance of
these aspects has been identified by considering the core questions.

2.3 Iterative Empirical Investigations for Specifying and Structuring on the

Empirical Level

In Sects. 2.1 and 2.2, the content was specified and structured on three levels. The
aim was to create, prescriptively, an intended learning trajectory that connects dif-
ferent characterizations and their underlying models and representations by suitable
core questions. Based on this, specifying and structuring on the empirical level
addresses the following main questions:
● Which typical individual perspectives of students (conceptions, ideas, knowledge,
etc.) can be expected? How do they relate to the intended perspectives (resources
vs. obstacles)?
● Which critical aspects in students’ learning pathways are most crucial (obstacles,
turning points, etc.)?
● Which typical preconceptions or previous knowledge can serve as fruitful starting
● How can the learning trajectory be re-sequenced with respect to students’ starting
points and obstacles?
The empirical investigation of these questions cannot be realized by assessments
or interviews, as it requires the initiation of the learning processes along the in-
tended learning trajectory. Hence, design experiments are the preferred method for
investigating students’ learning pathways (cf. Sect. 1.2). The design experiments on
which we report here stem from a design research study with four iterative design
experiment cycles (see Thiel-Schneider in preparation); the brief report on selected
results from design experiment cycles 2 and 3 will not account for the complete
research process.

2.3.1 Selected Insights from Design Experiment Cycle 2

Methods. In design experiment cycle 2, six pairs of students (15–16 years of age)
worked in a series of four design experiments in laboratory settings along the de-
scribed learning trajectory in a compound interest context. All 24 design experiment
sessions were videorecorded and partly transcribed. The qualitative data analysis
addressed the wide range of aforementioned questions. Here, we only report find-
ings on the students’ use of (proportionally) additive or multiplicative models. The
data analysis is structured by a cognitive and linguistic analytic approach (Hußmann
and Schacht 2015), based on Brandom’s (1994) semantic inferentialism as the philo-
sophical foundation. Owing to space constraints, the theoretical and methodological
framework is not presented here (cf. Hußmann and Schacht 2015). Selected results
are discussed with respect to their relevance for re-structuring the learning trajectory.
Results. The first finding of the data analysis was that the 12 students involved
dominantly activated the (proportionally) additive model, whereas multiplicative

S48 S. Hußmann, S. Prediger

Fig. 4 Conceptual gap between proportionally additive and multiplicative models in Terry’s reasoning

change was more difficult to see in the given numerical representations. However,
the students could easily invent the multiplicative perspective when challenged by
the core question of how to calculate further values.
The second result was less expected: The students’ choice of model depended
on the type of growth factor – integer growth factors (e. g. 2; 9; 200 %) seem
to be linked to multiplicative models and decimal growth factors (e. g. 1.2; 1.02)
to purely additive or proportionally additive models. This situatedness of model
choice produces obstacles in adequately connecting the multiplicative model with
the proportionally additive model.
We exemplify this phenomenon of situatedness of model choice by an excerpt of
transcripts from Terry, a 15-year-old girl, while she was trying to find the algebraic
expression for the first task (“I start with 1 cent. Then I double this cent every
month.”). Terry writes down 1 ·2x and explains:
Terry: Well, ehm, that is just like that, ehm. One is simply one cent and
two, well it is doubled. Times two and then that to the power, that would be,
depending on how many months. Ok, that is always, ehm, because written in
a long way, it would be one times two times two times two times two. But
instead of that, you can take that to the power of the months.
However, her next sentence refers to a growth factor of 1.02, which shows her
difficulties in linking the multiplication with the formula in (C3p) f (x) = a⋅(1 + p)x ∶
Terry: And the growth factor for it is simply this 1.02. Ok, 0.02 is simply what
is added, and the one, this 1 %, is the whole that you can add on. Because
with 0.02, you would only calculate the increase, not the result.
In several design experiments in cycle 2, students faced this obstacle of connect-
ing the multiplicative and the proportionally additive change adequately, especially
for an integer b > 1 for which Terry (see Fig. 4) creates C1Terry with f (x + 1) =
f (x) ⋅ (1 + 100 ) instead of the characterization (C1) f (x + 1) = f (x) ⋅ (1 + b − 1). As
a consequence, most students could hardly describe situations with integer growth
factor by C3p, even when (C3) f (x) = a ⋅ b x was found. This phenomenon of a con-
ceptual gap between multiplicative and proportionally additive change for integer
and decimal growth factors shows that the logical equivalence between C1–C3 and

Specifying and Structuring Mathematical Topics S49

(C2p) (C1p) (C3p)

Fig. 5 Comparison of table and bars

C1p–C3p, respectively, does not necessarily imply that students consider them as
equivalent because their thinking seems to be much more situated (b being integer
or not).
In order to reflect the students’ separations on the formal level, we logically
separate (C1I) f (x + 1) = f (x) ⋅ b with b integer from (C1p) f (x + 1) = f (x) ⋅ b with
b = 1 + p and b < 2. Their generalization to a C1 for all b is another step in the
learning trajectory.
An additional finding is that the numerical representation alone does not suffi-
ciently support the students in linking the proportionally additive model with the
multiplicative model. This can be due to unsustainable conceptions of the arith-
metic operations that can emerge easily in the “exponential” table. We concluded
that a second representation should complement the table.

2.3.2 Consequences of Design Experiment Cycle 2 for the Learning Trajectory in

Cycle 3

Different consequences were drawn based on these findings of conceptual gaps

between proportionally additive and multiplicative change found in the situatedness
of model choice:
● For mediating between C3I and C3p, the characterization C2p: f (x + 1) − f (x) =
p ⋅ f (x) received greater emphasis, as well as the connections between C3 and
C3p and C1p.
● Because the table alone did not sufficiently support students in constructing these
connections, the bar diagram was introduced in order to strengthen the connec-
In the first specification of the content on the semantic level in Sect. 2.1, di-
agrammatic representations were attributed a minor role because of their typical
limitations: In graphs, the changing gradient triangles are difficult to access and
bars only show the proportionally additive change, not the multiplicative change.
By contrast, both multiplicative and proportionally additive models can be visualized
in one table (as in Fig. 5, left).
Hence, a diagram with multiple percent bars was introduced for discovering the
proportionally additive change. With this second representation, we intended the
students to:

S50 S. Hußmann, S. Prediger

Fig. 6 Percent bars in additive

and multiplicative perspectives
and their combination

a b c

Fig. 7 Percent bars for two steps

● Activate prior knowledge about percentages

● Discover proportionally additive changes and the changing referent wholes
● Construct meanings for the changes discovered in tables and formulas
● Connect additive changes and multiplicative changes by linking points in the
proportionally additive model

In order to strengthen the connection between proportionally additive and mul-

tiplicative change, the learning trajectory was refined as follows. For one-step
computations, the relation between the multiplicative and the proportionally addi-
tive models is treated by using a single percent bar. The left bar in Fig. 6 shows
the proportionally additive reasoning, the middle bar its increase to 120 %. To show
the multiplicative relation to the middle bar, the scaling model for multiplication is
activated by the “rubber band” drawn in the lines of the right figure.
The transition to multistep calculations is conducted by a series of percent bars,
which give meaning to every row in the table and the proportionally additive as
well as multiplicative changes (Fig. 6). Contrary to the numerical representation in
the table, the percentage rate with changing referent wholes becomes visible in the
percent bars (Fig. 7). In the last step, the percent bars are moved onto each other
(see Fig. 8). This corresponds to the multistep computation in a table and offers
a meaningful base for finding C3/C3p with the explicit calculation rules.
From the beginning, the percent bars are presented vertically for guaranteeing
compatibility in the long-term learning processes, here the transition to the function

Specifying and Structuring Mathematical Topics S51

Fig. 8 Percent bars moved onto

each other

2.3.3 Selected Insights into Design Experiment Cycle 3

Methods. In design experiment cycle 3, the revised learning trajectory was used in
a design experiments series of four sessions each with 12 pairs of students (aged
15–16 years). The qualitative analysis of the video data investigated how the combi-
nation of tables and percent bars supports or constrains the students’ comprehensive
understanding of exponential growth.
Results. As the data analysis on the generated learning processes shows (Thiel-
Schneider in prep.), the use of percent bars presents an opportunity and a challenge
at the same time. The opportunity is to connect different models and representations;
the challenge is to handle the complexity of the relationships.
The following excerpt from a design experiment with the girl Pat and teacher T
gives an exemplary insight into a learning process. The task was to compute the
new capital for the old capital C 70 at an interest rate of 30 % and to visualize the
computation in a bar and rubber band.
101 T: Can you visualize that again with the lines next to the bars? So that we
can see more clearly, what are 130 %?

102 Pat: Yes. [7-s break]. Ok. Shall I again, like that?

103 T: Yes, this would be good, if you visualize [it] again, why are you here
or how do you calculate times 100, times 1.3.

104 Pat: Ok, that would be again here [works with the percent bar] ... that is
here, from 0 to 100 % ... that is again 1

105 T: What do you mean, what is then, that is again 1?

106 Pat: Ah ok, yes. That, that, that, the distance between the line, just where
is 0 and 100 %. Ok, the 0 % and the 100 %. That is again the 1 and then [...]
then the line between 0 and 130 would be this 1.3, that means again, [...] we
have scaled, not added.

S52 S. Hußmann, S. Prediger

Fifteen minutes later, when Pat calculates the capital after 2 years:
179 Pat: Ok, you take again the 100 % that you already have and multiply
them by 1.3, for getting the necessary result, though.

180 T: And what does it mean for your lines that you have drawn there?

181 Pat: That the 118 Euros, the 118 Euros and 30 cent correspond to my 1,
because I already have them, and the 153 Euros and 79 cent, these are what I
have, including this interest. Ok, you could have calculated that by the rule of
three, by ehm, adding this 30 %. But by doing it in one line, ehm in one step.
When you multiply it, what you have, simply with a certain number, thus this
1.3, so it becomes quicker, though.

Specifying and Structuring Mathematical Topics S53

And finally, she explains:

272 Pat Because we have to look that, ehm, the 100 % are not always on the
same level.
Similar to Pat in this scene, the other design experiments in this cycle showed
● The percent bars with the parallel representation of proportionally additive and
multiplicative variation can serve as a bridging tool to link additive and multi-
plicative reasoning (as for Pat in line 106).
● The sequential representation of percent bars and tables of compound-interest
processes form the basis to describe this relation, also for two- or multi-step
calculations (as for Pat in line 181).
● The percent bars help to focus the changing-referent wholes, which offers the
opportunity for arguing that the additive change is proportional to the old whole
(as for Pat in line 272).
The findings in both cycles have consequences for structuring the intended learn-
ing trajectory. In Fig. 9, the part concerning the development from interest to
compound interest is displayed. It shows that the step from b = 1 + p with b < 2
to b integer is now explicitly treated in order to align with the students’ thinking.
The rubber band representation allows one to link the proportionally additive and
multiplicative models and to prepare the transfer to another class of cases with b
integer. Only after that does the generalization to all b take place.

2.3.4 Summary

These selected insights into the empirical investigation of 36 students’ learning

pathways allow us to understand how empirical investigations on the empirical level
can inform the semantic and concrete levels, here in three main aspects:
● The proportionally additive model is a suitable starting point as it is near the fa-
miliar additive change for linear functions (confirmation of the learning trajectory
structured on the semantic level).
● Even if the multiplicative change is not introduced only with integer growth fac-
tors, a conceptual gap can appear between the proportionally additive model and
multiplicative model. This gap cannot be overcome by all students. Therefore,
a bridging tool is required to allow students to link both models. The conceptual
gap appears although a logical equivalence can easily be stated on the formal
level; thus the formal level is changed by restricting the different special cases
for b in the first stance in order to make it explicit that the generalization is an-
other nontrivial step in the learning trajectory (adjusting the formal level in order
to correspond to the empirical and semantic levels).
● Because the numerical representation in tables is not sufficient to let the changes
make sense, percent bars were integrated as an additional graphical representation.
The percent bar provides easier access to the changing referent wholes than the
tables do. For linking the two representations, the “rubber band” representation of
scaling proved its worth. Additionally, it allows us to link the two models and to

S54 S. Hußmann, S. Prediger

Fig. 9 Revised intended learning trajectory with percent bars and rubber band as bridging tool between

Specifying and Structuring Mathematical Topics S55

foster the understanding of the relationship between the step-by-step computations

and the algebraic formula (extension on the semantic level).

Although excerpts of the design research project on exponential growth could

only be briefly presented for illustrative purposes here, these selected results show
how empirical findings on the empirical level and theoretical considerations on the
formal, semantic, and concrete levels can be related and coordinated with each other,
in order to stimulate the four-level approach for specifying and structuring learning
In the next section, we embed this concrete project into the wider picture and add
some more general methodological reflections.

3 Embedding the Four-Level Approach into Historical and

Methodological Reflections

In this section, we do not intend to write a history of the whole tradition of Stoffdi-
daktik and its critiques (cf. Hefendehl-Hebeker 2016), but to embed our four-level
approach by relating it to the relevant literature. Historically, specifying and structur-
ing learning contents were considered a central task of German Didaktik traditions,
not only in mathematics education, but also in general education, although under
different names. As early as the 1950s, Klafki’s (1958) questions for a “didactical
analysis” intended not only to analyze, but also to restructure contents with respect
to their potential to contribute to general educational aims, namely, to Bildung (cf.
Westbury et al. 2000, for a review of the international significance of Klafki’s
work). The Didaktik approach in mathematics education has adopted this normative
framing through Bildung and substantiated it for mathematics by deep reflections
on different mathematical topics, their possible logical and semantic structures, and
their epistemological background, starting with Felix Klein (1908). When elaborat-
ing the approach for specific mathematical topics, the concrete normative questions
of restructuring the topics are foregrounded over general questions of legitimization.
For restructuring, typical constructs have been developed that allow us to op-
erationalize the approaches. Without attempting to achieve completeness, we will
briefly embed the four levels of our approach (as presented in Table 1) into this
Didaktik tradition by referring to some influential German-speaking researchers.

3.1 Specifying and Structuring the Content on the Formal Level and Beyond

Griesel (1971) presented the “didactically oriented subject matter analysis” as

a (mainly mathematical) method to prepare a mathematical background theory for
the content to be taught. This background theory with all relevant concepts, theo-
rems, and procedures should serve as a tool for the precise specification of learning
goals and for a suitable organization of a logical trajectory. Early examples for such
a specification and structuring on the formal level were given by Griesel (1971) and,
for example, by Holland’s (1974) deductively organized theory of transformational
geometry by which he grounded his alternative approach focused on construction

S56 S. Hußmann, S. Prediger

and favored over classical Euclidean geometry. The example shows that background
theories are contingent in the sense that they can follow different big didactical ideas.
Once having chosen the starting point and the principles, logical deductions were
considered necessary to consolidate the theory.
In the 1970s, the role of mathematical background theories was already discussed
controversially: On the one hand, knowing the logical connections between the
concepts and theorems is necessary for avoiding logical contradictions. But on the
other hand, the deductive structure alone cannot determine the learning trajectory,
as Holland (1974, p. 9) already conceded. Vollrath warned that while evaluating
learning sequences, the narrow reference to a background theory can easily lead to
claims for purism of [logical] methods (Vollrath 1979; cf. Sträßer 1996 for further
critique). He emphasized that not the linear structure of logical deductions, but the
rich connections between flexibly structured concepts and theorems form a suitable
formal background for a didactical analysis.
To overcome the discussed constraints on the formal level, our four-level ap-
proach (cf. Table 1) structures the content by searching for logical trajectories in
a network of logical connections. Within such a network, the designer can navigate
for structuring on the semantic level. Sometimes, even the empirical level can inform
the formal level: In our example in Sect. 2.3, restrictions in students’ perspectives
were included in the logical trajectory for making more explicit the required steps
of transfer or generalization.

3.2 Specifying and Structuring the Content on the Semantic Level

As early as the 1960s, the specification of content was not restricted to its formal
structure, but comprised also big ideas and meanings of concepts, operationalized in
basic mental models, and representations. By these theoretical constructs, Klafki’s
(1958) general normative question for the Bildungswert (i. e., the relevance for
enhancing general education) could be handled topic-specifically.
The theoretical construct “big ideas” (in German fundamentale Ideen) was intro-
duced by Bruner (1960) for drawing red lines in a spiral curriculum of each subject
and for identifying the essence of a subject matter, because “unless detail is placed
into a structured pattern, it is rapidly forgotten” (Bruner 1960, p. 24). In the Ger-
man mathematics education community, the construct of big ideas was picked up
prominently (e. g. Schweiger 2006; Schwill 1993; Tietze et al. 1997; Vollrath 1978;
Vohns 2016) and included into didactical analysis for grasping the significance of
a topic (cf., e. g. Kröpfl et al. 2010). However, Vohns (2010) criticized the fact that
in spite of the omnipresent theoretical discourse on big ideas, they rarely reach the
classrooms. He therefore pleaded for specified big ideas to be made accessible to
students in a more concrete way, and hence defined a task on the concrete level.
In parallel to reconstructing the global significance of topics, the meanings of
mathematical concepts and theorems have always been a major concern in the Ger-
man Didaktik tradition with its strong focus on conceptual understanding (Oehl
1962; Kühnel 1919; Winter 1983). Following the didactical principle of a focus on
meaning (later, e. g. Skemp 1976; Wagenschein 1968; Hiebert 1986), these early
authors included the search for meanings into their didactical analysis. Meanings

Specifying and Structuring Mathematical Topics S57

of mathematical concepts and theorems are mostly conceptualized by the construct

“basic mental model” (in German Grundvorstellungen; cf. Kirsch 1979, 2014; Ben-
der 1991; vom Hofe 1998) together with adequate graphical representations. Basic
mental models are defined as the standard interpretations of mathematics objects,
like the part-of-a-whole model for fractions or percentages (similarly Usiskin 2008).
By representations, we refer to verbal, graphical, algebraic, and numerical represen-
tations (Lesh 1979; Duval 2006). In the 1970s, also German didacticians emphasized
that students must build different basic mental models for each mathematical object
and operation, which can be achieved by changing between different representations
(Kirsch 1978, 1979; Lesh 1979 in the US).
Hence, both aspects, the global sense and the (more local) meaning, are cru-
cial for specifying and structuring a mathematical content on the semantic level,
especially with respect to the students’ capacity to make use of their mathematical
literacy in out-of-school situations (Heymann 1996). For the example of exponen-
tial growth, the big idea on functions as “describing and predicting processes and
changes” was operationalized in different models, among which the discrete model
in the covariation perspective received priority as a starting point. However, the
correspondence perspective also turned out to be important in motivating the search
for an explicit functional equation. The dichotomies of discrete and continuous
models, correspondence and covariation perspectives, and proportionally additive
and multiplicative change models resulted in distinguishing several characteristics
that are not logically equivalent on the formal level as they refer to different scopes
of b. Hence, the reconstruction provides suggestions not only for orders of treatment
along the learning trajectory, but also an increased sensitivity for necessary steps
of transfer and generalization. One main idea of this trajectory was to start with
the model of proportionally additive change to describe discrete exponential growth
processes and then to extend this approach with the model of multiplicative change
in order to develop the algebraic formula for percentages as well as integer growth
During the last 35 years, many German didacticians contributed to identifying
relevant basic mental models and suitable representations for various mathematical
topics. In this way, this key construct has become a widely used tool for specify-
ing meanings and has gained more practical importance for designs, textbooks, and
teacher education than the big ideas. However, the specification of basic mental
models has been a purely theoretical work for many years; it has only been com-
bined more systematically with empirical work since the late 1990s (cf. Sect. 3.3).
In the project on exponential growth, the empirical investigations of students’ learn-
ing pathways allowed a key challenge to be identified, the conceptual gap between
the proportionally additive and the multiplicative change model and the difficulties
of transfer and generalization. These insights led to an integration of a second rep-
resentation and to a restructuring of the learning trajectory, which was also inspired
by epistemological considerations.
Whereas specifying on the semantic level reconstructs the sense and meanings of
the ready-made mathematics in retrospect (in German Rückschau-Perspektive; cf.
Gallin and Ruf 1990), structuring on the semantic level treats the ways of con-

S58 S. Hußmann, S. Prediger

structing knowledge and meanings also from the students’ point of view (Vorschau-
Perspektive; cf. Gallin and Ruf 1990).
Structuring on the semantic level must be different to structuring on the formal
level as already discussed in the past: Although Holland (1974) considered a deduc-
tively structured background theory as important for teachers, he emphasized that
this deductive structure alone was not suitable for structuring a learning trajectory,
attributing to it “only ... a minor role for ... learning sequences ... in school” (Hol-
land 1974, p. 9). This is evidence of his awareness of distinguishing structuring on
formal and semantic levels.
The importance of the dynamic process of knowledge construction has already
been emphasized by John Dewey’s so-called genetic principle: “Its principle is
that the way to get insight into any complex product is to trace the process of its
making, – to follow it through the successive stages of its growth.” (Dewey 1926,
p. 251). Before Dewey, this genetic principle had already been phrased by Felix
Klein (1908). Since the 1960s, several German and international scholars have elab-
orated it, e. g. Roth (1970), Freudenthal (1983), Wittmann (1981), and Brousseau
(1997) from an epistemological perspective: Roth described the main task of the
concrete level as that of unpacking the original problems that historically led to in-
venting a mathematics concept or operation as “didactical art ... [of] re-transforming
dead facts into vivid actions from which they emerged: objects into inventions and
discoveries, ... solutions into tasks and phenomena into original phenomena” (Roth
1970, p. 116).
Freudenthal (1983) and Brousseau (1997) have been more explicit about how this
“didactical art” can be pursued systematically and concretely. Freudenthal suggested
working on the phenomenology:
Phenomenology of a mathematical concept, structure or idea means describing
it in relation to the phenomena for which it has been created, and to which
it has been extended in the learning process of mankind, and, as far as this
description is concerned with the learning process of the young generation, it
is didactical phenomenology, a way to show the teacher the places where the
learners might step into the learning process of mankind. (Freudenthal 1983,
p. ix)
Freudenthal’s phenomenology influenced the German Didaktik tradition markedly:
For each mathematical concept, designers search for the problems and situations in
which the concept can be re-invented (e. g. Lengnink 2009; Hußmann 2002). On
the basis of this phenomenological analysis, the learning trajectory can be structured
by horizontal and later vertical mathematization (Freudenthal 1983; Treffers 1987).
For example, students can invent the need for a nonrecursive characterization for
exponential growth when asked to find high values of the function. Then they can
discover the explicit functional equation in C3. This epistemological dimension
on the semantic level is also the most important in Wittmann’s (2012) approach
of “structural-genetic didactical analysis” with its focus on investigating authentic
mathematical practices.

Specifying and Structuring Mathematical Topics S59

3.3 Specifying and Structuring the Content on the Concrete Level and its
Relation to the Other Levels

In our four-level approach, we have combined this trajectory to the meaning of

mathematical concepts in the global sense as grasped by the big ideas (see semantic
level). Similar to genetic trajectories toward meanings, also genetic trajectories
toward big ideas can be found in order to make big ideas more accessible for
students, as Vohns (2010) demanded. To construct an epistemological access to
big ideas more locally, we developed the theoretical constructs of “core ideas and
core questions” on the concrete level (in German Kernfragen und Kernideen;, cf.
Leuders et al. 2011, elaborating early ideas from Gallin and Ruf 1990). Core
ideas give a (sometimes context-specific) concretization of the general big ideas
and can lead students along their learning trajectory. For example, the big idea of
functions describing and predicting processes can be made individually accessible
in the context of compound interest by the core questions: “How can I describe
how the money grows? And how can I predict how much I will have in 20 years?”
Whereas in this example the core questions are well-known and straightforward,
other mathematical topics require more creativity for inventing core questions. For
example, comparing fractions can be made accessible by the core question: “How
can I compare goals when the teams had unequal numbers of trials?” This allows
for an intense and fruitful process of horizontal mathematization.
The focus on the processes of vertical mathematization adds another dimension
that is crucial for structuring on the semantic and the concrete level, but not in the
presented part of the project on epistemological growth: The epistemology of mathe-
matics comprises not only the (often everyday) problems and situations, but also the
typical inner-mathematical processes by which mathematical knowledge is gained.
These typically epistemic mathematical activities have been described, for example,
by Hefendehl-Hebeker (2002) or Lengnink and Prediger (2000): Mental activities
like ordering, systematizing, exactifying, are crucial for mathematical knowledge
construction and should therefore be systematically addressed when structuring the
learning trajectory on the semantic and concrete level.

3.4 Specifying and Structuring the Content on the Empirical Level and its
Relation to the Other Levels

On the concrete level, intended learning trajectories are considered as the poten-
tial trajectories of so-called generic epistemic subjects. The reconstruction of these
trajectories can be empirically grounded by considering pathways of several individ-
ual subjects, for example, students (e. g. Confrey 2006; Simon 1995). Since about
25 years ago, the German Stoffdidaktik tradition has therefore been complemented by
empirical investigations of students’ thinking as, for example, in the approach of ed-
ucation reconstruction (Kattmann et al. 1997; for mathematics, Prediger 2008). The
program of educational reconstruction was originally developed in science education
as a theoretically based framework for subject-related research and development in
teaching and learning (Duit et al. 2005). Within this program, the tasks of specifying
and structuring contents have been combined with the empirical investigation into

S60 S. Hußmann, S. Prediger

learners’ perspectives with a focus on conceptions about the chosen mathematical

or scientific subject. This empirical investigation not only helps to specify the
starting points for learning trajectories, but also is based upon the assumption that
the content is not completely determined by the academic discipline. Instead, it
has to be reconstructed according to specific educational intentions with respect to
contexts, genesis, relevance, meaning, and the learners’ perspectives:
Our awareness of the students’ point of view may substantially influence the
interpretation of a particular science content so that a different position does
not only improve the researchers’ understanding of learning but also of the
referring science content. (Duit et al. 2005, p. 4)
The component of investigation into learners’ perspectives is crucial for being
able to include learners’ starting points in the development of learning trajectories
networks. Methodologically, this component demands empirical research on indi-
vidual conceptions and their backgrounds, which is usually done by case studies in
clinical interviews or classroom observations. The systematic confrontation of math-
ematical and individual perspectives is expressed by a motto given in a quotation
by Freudenthal:
I want to observe learning processes in order to understand mathematics better.
(Freudenthal 1974, p. 124)
With this motto, the usual relation between educational analysis and empirical
research on learning processes is inversed in a way that is astonishing at first sight.
Freudenthal (e. g. 1983) and others have often shown that a careful a priori analysis
of contents is necessary in order to understand learning difficulties (briefly: formal
and semantic levels inform the empirical level). The quoted statement refers to the
inverse direction that is less usual but equally important: The careful analysis of
learning processes on the empirical level and especially of appearing obstacles can
contribute fundamentally to an epistemologically careful analysis of the mathemat-
ical content (empirical level informs semantic and formal levels):
● Which typical individual perspectives of students (conceptions, ideas, knowledge,
etc.) can be expected?
● How do they relate to the intended perspectives (resources vs. obstacles)?
● What are the origins of typical obstacles or deviant conceptions?
Whereas the program of educational reconstruction offers a convincing approach
for including the empirical level in a mainly static manner into specifying the content,
it only partly supports the structuring of the content owing to its missing dynamics.
To include the dynamics more systematically, we learnt from the US tradition of
investigating learning processes in teaching experiments (Cobb et al. 2003). This
methodology that focuses on the dynamics of learning allows for conjecturing about
intended learning trajectories or conceptual corridors (Confrey and Lachance 2000)
and refining them by confronting them with empirical results regarding individual
pathways (cf. Prediger et al. 2015 for a historical perspective on design research).
Gravemeijer and Cobb (2006) show how to apply a similar methodological approach
for design experiments in classrooms instead of laboratory settings.

Specifying and Structuring Mathematical Topics S61

The four-level approach presented here also emphasizes the dynamic aspect of
empirical investigations for structuring the content:
● Which critical points in students’ learning pathways are most crucial (obstacles,
turning points, etc.)?
● Which typical preconceptions or previous knowledge can serve as fruitful starting
● How can the intended learning trajectory be sequenced with respect to students’
starting points and obstacles?

3.5 Outlook on Other Design Research Projects and the Impact of the
Empirical Level on Other Levels

In the briefly presented project on exponential growth, the insights from the empirical
level referred to representations and connections between models as typical obstacles
in students’ learning pathways and to obstacles in the processes of transfer and
generalization (cf. Sect. 2.3).
By giving some examples of other design research projects in our research group,
we briefly illustrate that the empirical level can provide insights and induce necessary
revisions for specifying or structuring on other levels:
● In the design research project on equivalence of algebraic expressions, the empir-
ical results on the empirical level led to specifying more necessary basic mental
models at the semantic level, namely, the variable as generalizer in geometric
figures (Prediger and Zwetzschler 2013). In this way, we learnt to see the change
between representations also as a source for additional semantic obstacles, which
are worth being overcome.
● A similar insight for specifying on the semantic level was the result of the inves-
tigation of students’ initial learning processes related to algebraic expressions in
a generalizing figure approach, which provided insights into the necessity of geo-
metrically structuring the shapes before being able to algebraize them (Hußmann
and Schacht 2015).
● The empirical investigation of students’ conceptions of the multiplication of frac-
tions resulted in restructuring the basic mental models of fraction in a triadic way,
involving always the fraction, the part, and the whole (Schink 2013). The teach-
ing–learning arrangement that was built upon this insight was organized around
the new core idea of “why is the whole so important for the fraction”? on the
structuring on the semantic level.
● In a long-term design research project on early stochastics, taking students’ per-
spectives seriously led us to reformulate the big idea for probability on the se-
mantic level and elementarizing it as a core idea for a learning arrangement in
grade 6 on the concrete level: Displays of randomness only show a pattern in the
long run (Prediger 2008).
● In a design research project on linear functions, students’ difficulties in overgen-
eralizing proportionality led to structuring all basic mental models and insights
on linear functions in contrast to proportional functions (Richter 2014). Fur-

S62 S. Hußmann, S. Prediger

thermore, the empirical insights led to an increased sensitivity of the quality of

contexts, which can resonate more or less with the intended structuring of the
topic on the concrete level.

In all these cases, Freudenthal’s motto was far reaching, but in very different ways.
Although the empirical level cannot inform normative questions of legitimizing
certain learning contents, these examples gives hints as to how they can support
enhancing their relevance for students’ general education (Heymann 1996).

4 Discussion

In this article, we present a four-level approach for specifying and structuring math-
ematical topics on the formal, semantic, concrete, and empirical levels. As the main
message was to show the strong interplay between the four levels, it is clear that we
do not claim any hierarchy between them and also see some overlaps. Rather than
keeping the levels separated, it is time to methodologically discuss these relations.
On the formal level, the target concepts, theorems, and procedures have to be de-
fined and structured. The necessity of clarifying their logical structure in a formal
way increases with the complexity of subtle distinctions and might not be neces-
sary in more simple cases. However, the example shows that the formal language
allows us to express subtle differences, also in students’ thinking. On the semantic
level, we discussed which didactical categories are crucial for constructing meaning.
Their structuring can be realized in different possible trajectories, the concrete level
hence also requires consideration of the role of contexts, of typical problems, and
of processes of vertical and horizontal mathematization. The interplay between the
semantic and the concrete levels is the basis for the necessary selection choices,
for instance, on suitable contexts or preferred models, which can best support the
intended learning trajectories. Including the empirical level not only for specifying
but also for structuring the topic requires an investigation of the students’ individual
learning pathways along or deviant from the intended learning trajectory in design
experiments. The results on the empirical level lead to refinements or modifications
on the other three levels.
With this four-level approach and the strong interplay between the levels, we
synthesize different traditions of German-speaking mathematics education research:
on the one hand, the didactical analysis in which mathematical topics are speci-
fied and structured within the formal and semantic levels and possibly realized on
the concrete level; on the other hand, an empirical approach to students’ leaning
pathways that are investigated in a design research methodology.
In the 1990s, these two different approaches were debated on, with the proponents
of each approach arguing against the other as being less important or even useless
(e. g. Sträßer 1996 and Steinbring 1998 for reports on the controversy). Twenty-
five years later, only a few ways of synthesizing the antagonist approaches have
been developed, and our four-level approach to specifying and structuring mathe-
matical topics presented here is one of them. It is elaborated with the dual aim of
design research, namely, providing practical design outcomes such as the specified

Specifying and Structuring Mathematical Topics S63

and structured intended learning trajectories and prototypical teaching–learning ar-

rangements, but also research outcomes contributing local theories of teaching and
Finally, we must mention some definite methodological limits of the approach:
Although specifying and structuring a topic results in an intended learning trajectory
with a teaching–learning arrangement consisting of a series of problems and tasks as
well as their means of support, design research in laboratory settings only provides
prototypes of teaching–learning arrangements. For a large-scale implementation in
classrooms, many further aspects have to be taken into account, e. g. the communi-
cation pattern in the classrooms, teachers’ professional knowledge, and many more.
Also for the research outcomes, the qualitative investigation of students’ learning
pathways has methodological limitations in that they are only studied in the context
of the concrete learning trajectory. Therefore, design research and the four-level
approach need to be successfully combined with other research approaches in order
to overcome these limitations.
Acknowledgements We thank Alexandra Thiel-Schneider, who works in the design research project, for
conducting and analyzing the design experiments. And we thank our research group and the reviewers for
in-depth discussions on earlier versions of the article.


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