Frontiers in Psychology, 8(144). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00144
Proportional reasoning is important and yet difficult for many students, who often use additive strategies, where multiplicative strategies are better suited. In our research we explore the potential of an interactive touchscreen tablet application to promote proportional reasoning by creating conditions that encourage transitions to multiplicative strategies. The design of this application (Mathematical Imagery Trainer) was inspired by arguments from embodied-cognition theory that mathematical understanding is grounded in sensorimotor schemes. This study draws on a corpus of previously treated data of 9-11 year-old students, who participated individually in semi-structured clinical interviews, in which they solved a manipulation task that required moving two vertical bars at a constant ratio of heights (1:2). Qualitative analyses revealed the frequent emergence of visual attention to the screen location halfway along the bar that was twice as high as the short bar. The hypothesis arose that students used so-called “attentional anchors” (AAs)—psychological constructions of new perceptual structures in the environment that people invent spontaneously as their heuristic means of guiding effective manual actions for managing an otherwise overwhelming task, in this case keeping vertical bars at the same proportion while moving them. We assumed that students’ AAs on the mathematically relevant points were crucial in progressing from additive to multiplicative strategies. Here we seek farther to promote this line of research by reanalyzing data from 38 students (aged 9-11). We ask: (1) What quantitative evidence is there for the emergence of attentional anchors?; and (2) How does the transition from additive to multiplicative reasoning take place when solving embodied proportions tasks in interaction with the touchscreen tablet app? We found that: (a) AAs appeared for all students; (b) the AA-types were few across the students; (c) the AAs were mathematically relevant (top of the bars and halfway along the tall bar); (d) interacting with the tablet was crucial for the AAs’ emergence; and (e) the vast majority of students progressed from additive to multiplicative strategies (as corroborated with oral utterance). We conclude that touchscreen applications have the potential to create interaction conditions for coordinating action and perception for mathematical cognition.