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Mark W. Ellis and Janet L. Bryson

Sitting in the back of Ms. Corey's sixthgrade mathematics class, I enjoyed seeing students enthusiastically demonstrate their understanding of absolute value. On the giant number line on the classroom floor, they counted the steps that they needed to take to get back to zero. The old definition of absolute value of a number as its distance from zero—learned by students and teachers of the previous generation—has long ago been replaced with this algebraic statement: |x| = x if x ≤ 0 or − x if x < 0. The absolute value learning objective in high school mathematics requires students to solve far more complex absolute value equations and inequalities. However, I cannot remember students attacking the task with enthusiasm or having any understanding beyond “make the inside positive.”