The function concept is one of the most important concepts in the learning of mathematics (Dubinsky & Harel, 1992), yet it is considered by many researchers to be one of the least understood and most difficult concepts to master in the learning of high school mathematics (Eisenberg, 1992, Sfard, 1992). To this end, problems concerning its teaching and learning are often confronted (Mann, 2000) and few teachers know how learners come to understand functions (Yoon, 2007). As a result, most teachers teach functions using the conventional approach which starts by stating definitions followed by examples and then a few applications. The nature of this approach has not encouraged teachers to engage learners and their ways of reasoning in knowledge construction and adequately addressing their difficulties.
The purpose of this study was to use design research to improve the teaching and learning of functions at grade 11 level. This was achieved by adapting design cycles of Wademan’s (2005) Generic Design Research model in which each cycle comprised different iterative APOS (Action, Process, Object, Schema) analysis, design, development and implementation of hypothetical learning trajectories (HLTs). I started by interrogating twelve grade 11 learners of a particular rural high school on the June 2011 mathematics paper 1 examination they had written to determine the APOS theory conception level each learner was operating at, and their difficulties. Learners’ difficulties from initial interviews and literature were grouped under the function definition and representation. I then designed instruction based on HLTs embedded with Realistic Mathematics Education (RME) activities and two separate tasks on the definition and representation as a form of intervention to help learners move up from their initial conception levels to the next and to overcome their difficulties. After each design cycle I interviewed learners based on the task for a particular concept and learners’ responses were analysed using APOS theory and used to design further instruction to help learners approximate the schema level of understanding concepts related to functions.
The major findings of this study were that the use of learners’ conceptions and RME activities in designing instruction helped learners to progress smoothly through APOS theory conception levels though they did not fully reach the intended schema level. In addition, design research cycles and their HLTs implemented in a constructivist environment enabled learners to collectively derive working definitions of the function concept and to improve their conceptual understanding of the process of switching from a graph to an equation. Another contribution of this study has been a deeper understanding of the extent to which design research can be used to improve learners’ understanding of functions and an addition of some insights to the teaching and learning of functions.