RYSK: Gravemeijer's Local Instruction Theories as Means of Support for Teachers in Reform Mathematics Education (2004)

This is the 12th in a series describing "Research You Should Know" (RYSK) and part of my OpenComps.

Gravemeijer (from above) at the 2011 RME Conference
I began my recent reading of the literature on learning trajectories by reading Clements & Sarama's (2004) Learning Trajectories in Mathematics Education, and then went back to where the idea formally began, Simon's (1995) Reconstructing Mathematics Pedagogy from a Constructivist Perspective. Now I'm jumping to 2004 again with Koeno Gravemeijer's Local Instruction Theories as Means of Support for Teachers in Reform Mathematics Education. Koeno Gravemeijer (pronounced Koo-no Grav-meyer) has worked at multiple institutions in the Netherlands and spent time at Vanderbilt working with Paul Cobb, but he's best known for his long time association and leadership with the Freudenthal Institute and his advancements of Realistic Mathematics Education (RME).

When Martin Simon introduced the concept of hypothetical learning trajectories in his 1995 paper Reconstructing Mathematics Pedagogy from a Constructivist Perspective, he described them as part of a teaching cycle that was informed by the teacher's knowledge and then revised after assessment of student understanding. While much of the focus was placed on the idea of the trajectory, Simon made clear that no two trajectories will be alike, as each one is hypothesized for a unique group of students who are uniquely constructing knowledge. In other words, you can't just prescribe a trajectory and ask teachers to follow it to the letter. Instead, Simon suggested we needed to build an understanding of the knowledge teachers were using to inform and modify their trajectories:

A possible contribution that can be made by the analysis of data and the resulting model reported in this paper is to encourage other researchers to examine teachers' "theorems in action" and to make teachers' assumptions, beliefs, and emerging theories about teaching explicit. (p. 142)

This paper by Gravemeijer is, in part, a response to Simon's call to other researchers. Gravemeijer first states that in a constructivism-inspired reform mathematics, the traditional goals of instructional design must change:

What is needed for reform mathematics education is a form of instructional design supporting instruction that helps students to develop their current ways of reasoning into more sophisticated ways of mathematical reasoning. For the instructional designer this implies a change in perspective from decomposing ready-made expert knowledge as the starting point for design to imagining students elaborating, refining, and adjusting their current ways of knowing. (p. 106)

Next, Gravemeijer recognizes that while every teacher can use their knowledge to hypothesize a learning trajectory, we (researchers, teacher educators, curriculum designers) need to have some knowledge in common if we want to help teachers:

The example Simon (1995) worked out shows that designing hypothetical learning trajectories for reform mathematics is no easy task. We can, therefore, ask ourselves what kind of support can be given to teachers. It is clear that we cannot rely on fixed, ready-made, instructional sequences, because the teacher will continuously have to adapt to the actual thinking and learning of his or her students. Thus it seems more adequate to offer the teacher some framework of reference, and a set of exemplary instructional activities that can be used as a source of inspiration. (p. 107)

This is where Gravemeijer introduces the concept of a local instruction theory, which he describes as "the description of, and rationale for, the envisioned learning route as it relates to a set of instructional activities for a specific topic" (p. 107). I admit, it's difficult at first to discern this from a hypothetical learning trajectory, but I think the key is the relationship to instructional activities (which are more fixed/solid) instead of a trajectory's relationship to student understanding (which is more flexibile/fluid). By addressing the relationship of learning to the instructional activities, Gravemeijer uses local instruction theories to describe a common foundation teachers can use for building trajectories, saying that "Externally developed local instruction theories are indispensable for reform mathematics education" and that it is "unfair to expect teachers to invent hypothetical learning trajectories without any means of support" (p. 108). (If you're still confused, I think I can safely oversimplify it like this: Simon says trajectories are about student learning, not mathematical tasks. Gravemeijer agrees, but since trajectories are unique because student learning is unique, it helps if we have some agreed-upon ideas about how mathematical tasks should be designed.) Given Gravemeijer's long association with the Freudenthal Institute, he naturally describes how design principles from Realistic Mathematics Education (RME) provide the kind of instructional design framework for creating a local instruction theory.

Design Research and RME

Some curricula and instructional strategies are developed then subjected to treatment and control groups to test their effectiveness. That's not design research and not how RME has been developed. Instead, design research consists of cyclical iterations of thought experiments, teaching experiments, and retrospective analyses. It's similar to how teachers improve their instruction as they gain experience: they plan an activity for year one, then conduct that activity, then reflect on the activity so it will be better in year two. Of course, a team of researchers who are carefully theorizing, observing, collecting data, and analyzing the results across multiple classrooms can more quickly and effectively improve tasks and instruction than a teacher can alone.

Gravemeijer describes the design research he conducted with Paul Cobb and others around the development of mental computation strategies for addition and subtraction with elementary students. There are numerous papers and at least part of one dissertation all related to this work, so I won't describe it here. I will, however, describe the three RME design principles that Gravemeijer cites as helping form the local instruction theory that guided the design research process.

Guided Reinvention

Hans Freudenthal (1973) believed mathematics is best learned when students get to experience a process of learning that's similar to the way the mathematics was invented.

If mathematics is to be applied, applying mathematics should be taught and learned. Applying is often interpreted, as mentioned above, as substituting numerical values for parameters in general theorems and theories. This is a misleading terminology. Mathematics is applied by creating it anew each time -- I will expound this in more detail too. This activity can never be exercised by learning mathematics as a ready-made product. Drilling algorithms may be indispensable, but inventing problems to drill algorithms does not create opportunities to teach applying mathematics. This so-called applied mathematics lacks the flexibility of good mathematics. (Freudenthal, 1973, p. 118)

I've heard criticisms of this approach. "How in the world can a student reinvent mathematics that took mathematicians hundreds of years to understand?" That's a valid question, and the best answer is: "Through carefully designed curriculum and instruction." The goal is not to replicate the invention of the mathematics, but learn from history how a mathematical idea might be constructed in the mind of a student. Of course, this takes an extensive and special knowledge of the history of mathematics, and largely explains why Freudenthal's Mathematics as an Educational Task is almost 700 pages long.

Didactical Phenomenology

The concept of didactical phenomenology relates the mathematical "thought thing" and the phenomenon it describes. This is not a theory I know well but hope to study more in the future.

Mathematical concepts, structures, and ideas serve to organise phenomena -- phenomena from the concrete world as well as from mathematics -- and in the past I have illustrated this by many examples. By means of geometrical figures like triangle, parallelogram, rhombus, or square, one succeeds in organising the world of contour phenomena; numbers organise the phenomenon of quantity. On a higher level the phenomenon of geometrical figure is organised by means of geometrical constructions and proofs, the phenomenon "number" is organised by means of the decimal system. So it goes in mathematics up to the highest levels: continuing abstraction brings similar looking mathematical phenomena under one concept -- group, field, topological space, deduction, induction, and so on. (Freudenthal, 1983, p. 28)

Traditionally we teach an abstract mathematics and then find examples for students to make the mathematics concrete. With didactical phenomenology, we focus on progressive mathematization, suggesting "looking for phenomena that might create opportunities for the learner to constitute the mental object that is being mathematized" (Gravemeijer, p. 116). Yes, it's hard to understand without a lot of specific examples, and that's why Freudenthal wrote almost 600 pages on this topic. It's all in a book I have yet to read, so I'll forgive myself for giving a better description here.

Emergent Modeling

I can best describe emergent modeling with an example. Imagine an elementary class learning about fractions. Instead of giving students a formal model (like a numerator and denominator), the concept of emergent modeling says we should let students reach these models informally and progressively. If a task involves the sharing of parts of cookies with the students, students might begin with breaking apart actual cookies. Once realizing this isn't convenient, students might move to drawing cookies on paper. At some point they'll realize that drawing all the details of the cookie isn't necessary and just use a circle to represent a cookie. Up until this point, these are all models-of a cookie. The key step in this process is when students start using circles to model other contextual situations, like working with fractions of time, money, space, etc. Now the circle is a model-for a part-whole relationship, and not representing a specific object like a cookie. These models-for have the power to generalize to other contexts, and eventually students no longer need the circle and rely on formal mathematics to represent and work with fractions. Gravemeijer describes a similar process in this paper, except with how bead strings, unifix cubes, and rulers can lead to marked and empty number lines as students develop ideas of cardinality, ordinality, and distance as they learn mental strategies for addition and subtraction.


I hope by now you have some sense for a local instruction theory. The three RME principles above -- guided reinvention, didactical phenomenology, and emergent modeling -- do not describe a detailed instructional sequence of tasks and instructions for a teacher. They are, however, a way of theorizing how a particular instructional sequence should work, grounded in the design research conducted by Gravemeijer et al. This kind of local instruction theory is what allows teachers to design hypothetical learning trajectories that focus on the construction of student understanding, and provide some common ground for helping teachers become better at trajectory hypothesizing.


Freudenthal, H. (1973). Mathematics as an educational task (p. 680). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: D. Reidel.

Freudenthal, H. (1983). Didactical phenomenology of mathematical structures (p. 595). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: D. Reidel.

Gravemeijer, K. (2004). Local instruction theories as means of support for teachers in reform mathematics education. Mathematical Thinking and Learning, 6(2), 105–128. doi:10.1207/s15327833mtl0602_3

Simon, M. A. (1995). Reconstructing mathematics pedagogy from a constructivist perspective. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 26(2), 114–145. doi:10.2307/749205