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Teaching Mathematics 2
Teaching Mathematics Teaching for Deep Understanding

Teaching Mathematics

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At the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Canadian Regional Conference in Halifax (2000), Marilyn Burns said in her keynote address, "When it comes to mathematics curricula there is very little to cover, but an awful lot to uncover [discover]." This statement captures the essence of the ongoing call for change in the teaching of mathematics. Mathematics is a dynamic and logic-based language that students need to explore and make sense of for themselves. For many teachers, parents, and former students this is a marked change from the way mathematics was taught to them. Research and experience indicate there is a complex, interrelated set of characteristics that teachers need to be aware of in order to provide an effective mathematics program.

Critical Characteristics of Mathematics Education

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The following sections in this curriculum highlight some of the different facets for teachers to consider in the process of changing from covering to supporting students in discovering mathematical concepts. These facets include:

  • organization of the outcomes into strands
  • seven mathematical processes
  • the difference between covering and discovering mathematics
  • development of mathematical terminology
  • First Nations and Métis learners and mathematics
  • continuum of understanding from concrete to abstract
  • modelling and making connections
  • role of homework
  • importance of ongoing feedback and reflection.


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The content of K-12 Mathematics can be organized in a variety of ways. In this curriculum, the outcomes and indicators are grouped according to four strands: Number, Patterns and Relations, Shape and Space, and Statistics and Probability.

Although this organization implies a relatedness among the outcomes identified in each of the strands, it should be noted the mathematical concepts are interrelated across the strands as well as within strands. Teachers are encouraged to design learning activities that integrate outcomes both within a strand and across the strands so that students develop a comprehensive and connected view of mathematics rather than viewing mathematics as a set of compartmentalized ideas and separate strands.

Mathematical Processes

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This Grade 2 Mathematics curriculum recognizes seven processes inherent in the teaching, learning, and doing of mathematics. These processes focus on: communicating, making connections, mental mathematics and estimating, problem solving, reasoning, and visualizing along with using technology to integrate these processes into the mathematics classroom to help students learn mathematics with deeper understanding.

The outcomes in K-12 Mathematics should be addressed through the appropriate mathematical processes as indicated by the bracketed letters following each outcome. Teachers should consider carefully in their planning those processes indicated as being important to supporting student achievement of the various outcomes.

Communication [C]

Students need opportunities to read about, represent, view, write about, listen to, and discuss mathematical ideas using both personal and mathematical language and symbols. These opportunities allow students to create links between their own language, ideas, and prior knowledge, the formal language and symbols of mathematics, and new learnings.

Communication is important in clarifying, reinforcing, and modifying ideas, attitudes, and beliefs about mathematics. Students should be encouraged to use a variety of forms of communication while learning mathematics. Students also need to communicate their learning using mathematical terminology, but only when they have had sufficient experience to develop an understanding for that terminology.

Concrete, pictorial, symbolic, physical, verbal, written, and mental representations of mathematical ideas should be encouraged and used to help students make connections and strengthen their understandings.

Connections [CN]

Contextualization and making connections to the experiences of learners are powerful processes in developing mathematical understanding. When mathematical ideas are connected to each other or to other real-world phenomena, students begin to view mathematics as useful, relevant, and integrated.

The brain is constantly looking for and making connections. Learning mathematics within contexts and making connections relevant to learners can validate past experiences and prior knowledge, and increase student willingness to participate and be actively engaged.

Mental Mathematics and Estimation [ME]

Mental mathematics is a combination of cognitive strategies that enhance flexible thinking and number sense. It is calculating mentally and reasoning about the relative size of quantities without the use of external memory aids. Mental mathematics enables students to determine answers and propose strategies without paper and pencil. It improves computational fluency and problem solving by developing efficiency, accuracy, and flexibility.

Estimation is a strategy for determining approximate values of quantities, usually by referring to benchmarks or using referents, or for determining the reasonableness of calculated values. Students need to know how, when, and what strategy to use when estimating. Estimation is used to make mathematical judgements and develop useful, efficient strategies for dealing with situations in daily life.

Problem Solving [PS]

Learning through problem solving should be the focus of mathematics at all grade levels. When students encounter new situations and respond to questions of the type, "How would you ...?", "Can you ...?", or "What if ...?", the problem-solving approach is being modelled. Students develop their own problem-solving strategies by being open to listening, discussing, and trying different strategies.

In order for an activity to be problem-solving based, it must ask students to determine a way to get from what is known to what is sought. If students have already been given ways to solve the problem, it is not problem solving but practice. A true problem requires students to use prior learnings in new ways and contexts. Problem solving requires and builds depth of conceptual understanding and student engagement.

Problem solving is a powerful teaching tool that fosters multiple and creative solutions. Creating an environment where students actively look for, and engage in finding, a variety of strategies for solving problems empowers students to explore alternatives and develops confidence, reasoning, and mathematical creativity.

Reasoning [R]

Mathematical reasoning helps students think logically and make sense of mathematics. Students need to develop confidence in their abilities to reason and explain their mathematical thinking. High-order inquiry challenges students to think and develop a sense of wonder about mathematics.

Mathematical experiences in and out of the classroom should provide opportunities for students to engage in inductive and deductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning occurs when students explore and record results, analyze observations, make generalizations from patterns, and test these generalizations. Deductive reasoning occurs when students reach new conclusions based upon what is already known or assumed to be true.

Visualization [V]

The use of visualization in the study of mathematics provides students with opportunities to understand mathematical concepts and make connections among them. Visual images and visual reasoning are important components of number sense, spatial sense, and logical thinking. Number visualization occurs when students create mental representations of numbers and visual ways to compare those numbers.

Being able to create, interpret, and describe a visual representation is part of spatial sense and spatial reasoning. Spatial visualization and reasoning enable students to describe the relationships among and between 3-D objects and 2-D shapes including aspects such as dimensions and measurements.

Visualization is also important in the students' development of abstraction and abstract thinking and reasoning. Visualization provides a connection between the concrete, physical, and pictorial to the abstract symbolic. Visualization is fostered through the use of concrete materials, technology, and a variety of visual representations as well as the use of communication to develop connections between different contexts, content, and representations.

Technology [T]

Technology tools contribute to student achievement of a wide range of mathematical outcomes, and enable students to explore and create patterns, examine relationships, test conjectures, and solve problems. Calculators, computers, and other forms of technology can be used to:

  • explore and demonstrate mathematical relationships and patterns
  • organize and display data
  • extrapolate and interpolate
  • assist with calculation procedures as part of solving problems
  • decrease the time spent on computations when other mathematical learning is the focus
  • reinforce the learning of basic facts and test properties
  • develop personal procedures for mathematical operations
  • create geometric displays
  • simulate situations
  • develop number sense
  • develop spatial sense
  • develop and test conjectures.

Technology contributes to a learning environment in which the growing curiosity of students can lead to rich mathematical discoveries at all grade levels. It is important for students to understand and appreciate the appropriate use of technology in a mathematics classroom. It is also important that students learn to distinguish between when technology is being used appropriately and when it is being used inappropriately. Technology should never replace understanding, but should be used to enhance it.

Discovering versus Covering

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Teaching mathematics for deep understanding involves two processes: teachers covering content and students discovering content. Knowing what needs to be covered and what can be discovered is crucial in planning for mathematical instruction and learning. The content that needs to be covered (what the teacher needs to explicitly tell the students) is the social conventions or customs of mathematics. This content includes things such as what the symbol for an operation looks like, mathematical terminology, and conventions regarding recording of symbols.

The content that can and should be discovered by students is the content that can be constructed by students based on their prior mathematical knowledge. This content includes things such as strategies and procedures, rules, and problem solving. Any learning in mathematics that is a result of the logical structure of mathematics can and should be constructed by students.

For example, in Grade 2, the students encounter increasing patterns in outcome P2.2:

Demonstrate understanding of increasing patterns by:

  • describing
  • reproducing
  • extending
  • creating patterns using manipulatives, pictures, sounds, and actions (numbers to 100).

[C, CN, PS, R, V]

In this outcome, the term "increasing patterns" is a social convention of the mathematics the students are learning and, as such, it is something that the teacher must tell the student. Analysis of the pattern in order to describe, reproduce, extend, and create increasing patterns with understanding requires students to explore, conjecture, verify, and abstract their own understandings. This type of learning requires students to work concretely, physically, orally, pictorially, in writing, and symbolically. It also requires that students share their ideas with their classmates and reflect upon how the ideas and understandings of others relate to, inform, and clarify what students individually understand. In this type of learning, the teacher does not tell the students how to do the mathematics but, rather, invites the students to explore and develop an understanding of the logical structures inherent in the mathematics in increasing patterns. Thus, the teacher's role is to create inviting and rich inquiring tasks and to use questioning to effectively probe and further students' learning.

Development of Mathematical Terminology

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Part of learning mathematics is learning how to speak mathematically. Teaching students mathematical terminology when they are learning for deep understanding requires that the students connect the new terminology with their developing mathematical understanding. As a result, it is important that students first linguistically engage with new mathematical concepts using words that students already know or that make sense to them.

For example, in outcome P2.3:

Demonstrate understanding of equality and inequality concretely and pictorially (0 to 100) by:

  • relating equality and inequality to balance
  • comparing sets
  • recording equalities with an equal sign
  • recording inequalities with a not equal sign
  • solving problems involving equality and inequality.

[C, CN, R, V]

the terminology, at least in a mathematical sense, of "equality" and "inequality" will likely be new to most of the students. This does not mean, however, that students cannot use their own vocabulary to explain the relationships of equality and inequality (e.g., the same, not the same, fair share, or not fair share) that they discover through their mathematical explorations. When the students are able to describe their understandings of these two concepts, then the actual mathematical terminology is best introduced (equality and inequality) because the students have other knowledge with which to connect the new words. Upon introducing these new terms, the teacher should also be checking if the students have other connections to the new words in non-mathematical settings. For example, students may be very aware of racial, age, cultural, or gender-related inequalities. It is beneficial that students also consider such contexts to help them better understand and make connections to the new mathematical context for the words.

First Nations and Métis Learners and Mathematics

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It is important for teachers to realize that First Nations and Métis students, like all students, come to mathematics classes with a wealth of mathematical understandings. Within these mathematics classes, some First Nations and Métis students may develop a negative sense of their ability in mathematics and, in turn, do poorly on mathematics assessments. Such students may become alienated from mathematics because it is not taught to their schema, cultural and environmental content, or real life experiences. A first step in actualization of mathematics from First Nations and Métis perspectives is to empower teachers to understand that mathematics is not acultural. As a result, teachers then realize that the traditional ways of teaching the mathematics are also culturally-biased. These understandings will support the teacher in developing First Nations and Métis students' personal mathematical understandings and mathematical self-confidence and ability through a more holistic and constructivist approach to learning. Teachers need to consider factors that impact the success of First Nations and Métis students in mathematics: cultural contexts and pedagogy.

It is important for teachers to recognize the influence of cultural contexts on mathematical learning. Educators need to be sensitive to the cultures of others, as well as to how their own cultural background influences their current perspective and practice. Mathematics instruction focuses on the individual parts of the whole understanding and, as a result, the contexts presented tend to be compartmentalized and treated discretely. This focus on parts may be challenging for students who rely on whole contexts to support understanding.

Mathematical ideas are valued, viewed, contextualized, and expressed differently by cultures and communities. Translation of these mathematical ideas between cultural groups cannot be assumed to be a direct link. Consider, for example, the concept of "equal", which is a key understanding in this curriculum. The Western understanding of "equal" is 'the same'. In many First Nations and Métis communities, however, "equal" is understood as meaning 'for the good of the community'. Teachers need to support students in uncovering these differences in ways of knowing and understanding within the mathematic classroom. Various ways of knowing need to be celebrated to support the learning of all students.

Along with an awareness of students' cultural context, pedagogical practices also influence the success of First Nations and Métis students in the mathematics classroom. Mathematical learning opportunities need to be holistic, occurring within social and cultural interactions through dialogue, language, and the negotiation of meanings. Constructivism, ethnomathematics, and teaching through an inquiry approach are supportive of a holistic perspective to learning. Constructivism, inquiry learning, and ethnomathematics allow students to enter the learning process according to their ways of knowing, prior knowledge, and learning styles. Ethnomathematics also shows the relationship between mathematics and cultural anthropology. It is used to translate earlier forms of thinking into modern-day understandings. Individually, and as a class, teachers and students need to explore the big ideas that are foundational to this curriculum and investigate how those ideas relate to them personally and as a learning community. Mathematics learned within contexts that focus on the day-to-day activities found in students' communities support learning by providing a holistic focus. Mathematics needs to be taught using the expertise of elders and the local environment as educational resources. The variety of interactions that occur among students, teachers, and the community strengthen the learning experiences for all.

The Concrete to Abstract Continuum

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It is important that, in learning mathematics, students be allowed to explore and develop understandings by moving along a concrete to abstract continuum. As understanding develops, this movement along the continuum is not necessarily linear. Students may at one point be working abstractly but when a new idea or context arises, they need to return to a concrete starting point. Therefore, the teacher must be prepared to engage students at different points along the continuum.

In addition, what is concrete and what is abstract is not always obvious and can vary according to the thinking processes of the individual. For example, when considering a problem about the total number of pencils, some students might find it more concrete to use pictures of pencils as a means of representing the situation. Other students might find coins more concrete because they directly associate money with the purchasing or having of a pencil.

As well, teachers need to be aware that different aspects of a task might involve different levels of concreteness or abstractness. Consider the following problem involving subtraction:

Roger's mother placed 12 apples in a bowl on the centre of the table. The next day, Roger counted only 8 apples in the bowl. How many apples had been taken out of the bowl?

Depending upon how the problem is expected to be solved (or if there is any specific expectation), this problem can be approached abstractly (using symbolic number statements), concretely (e.g., using manipulatives, pictures, role play), or both.

Models and Connections

New mathematics is continuously developed by creating new models as well as combining and expanding existing models. Although the final products of mathematics are most frequently represented by symbolic models, their meaning and purpose is often found in the concrete, physical, pictorial, and oral models and the connections between them.

To develop a deep and meaningful understanding of mathematical concepts, students need to represent their ideas and strategies using a variety of models (concrete, physical, pictorial, oral, and symbolic). In addition, students need to make connections between the different representations. These connections are made by having the students try to move from one type of representation to another (how could you write what you've done here using mathematical symbols?) or by having students compare their representations with others around the class.

In making these connections, students should also be asked to reflect upon the mathematical ideas and concepts that students already know are being used in their new models (e.g., I know that addition means to put things together into a group, so I'm going to move the two sets of blocks together to determine the sum).

Making connections also involves looking for patterns. For example, in outcome N2.2:

Demonstrate understanding of addition (limited to 1 and 2-digit numerals) with answers to 100 and the corresponding subtraction by:

  • representing strategies for adding and subtracting concretely, pictorially, and symbolically.
  • creating and solving problems involving addition and subtraction
  • estimating
  • using personal strategies for adding and subtracting with and without the support of manipulatives
  • analyzing the effect of adding or subtracting zero
  • analyzing the effect of the ordering of the quantities (addends, minuends, and subtrahends) in addition and subtraction statements.

[C, CN, ME, PS, R, V]

the students' recognition of patterns, such as those found when adding using a hundred chart, can then be generalized into personal addition strategies to be applied and verified.

Role of Homework

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The role of homework in teaching for deep understanding is very important and also quite different from homework that is traditionally given to students. Students should be given unique problems and tasks that help students to consolidate new learnings with prior knowledge, explore possible solutions, and apply learnings to new situations. Although drill and practice does serve a purpose in learning for deep understanding, the amount and timing of the drill will vary among different learners. In addition, when used as homework, drill and practice frequently serves to cause frustration, misconceptions, and boredom to arise in students.

As an example of the type or style of homework that can be used to help students develop deep understanding of Grade 2 Mathematics, consider outcome SS2.4 :

Describe, compare and construct 2-D shapes, including:

  • triangles
  • squares
  • rectangles
  • circles.

[C, CN, R, V]

As a homework task, students might be asked to trace the tops of 6 different containers they find at home and then sort their pictures in a way that makes sense to them. In the following class, the students could work in pairs or small groups to consider questions such as:

  • "How did each student sort their pictures?"
  • "What is the same about some of the pictures? What is different?"
  • "How might you sort all of your pictures together?"
  • "I had a container at home that had a top like this:

Did any of your shapes have the same type of top? How do you know?"

The students' discussions regarding their homework can then lead into further explorations relating to outcome SS2.4, or the pictures and the discussions can be used to connect learnings from outcome SS2.4 with those from outcome SP2.1:

Demonstrate understanding of concrete graphs and pictographs. [C, CN, PS, R, V]

with students creating their own versions of concrete graphs and pictographs to represent the data (pictures) collected.

Ongoing Feedback and Reflection

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Ongoing feedback and reflection, both for students and teachers, are crucial in classrooms when learning for deep understanding. Deep understanding requires that both the teacher and students need to be aware of their own thinking as well as the thinking of others.

Feedback from peers and the teacher helps students rethink and solidify their understandings. Feedback from students to the teacher gives much needed information in the teacher's planning for further and future learnings.

Self-reflection, both shared and private, is foundational to students developing a deep understanding of mathematics. Through reflection tasks, students and teachers come to know what it is that students do and do not know. It is through such reflections that not only can a teacher make better informed instructional decisions, but also that a student can set personal goals and make plans to reach those goals.

Teaching for Deep Understanding

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For deep understanding, it is vital that students learn by constructing knowledge, with very few ideas being relayed directly by the teacher. As an example, the addition sign (+) is something which the teacher must introduce and ensure that students know. It is the symbol used to show the combination or addition of two quantities. The process of adding, however, and the development of addition and subtraction facts should be discovered through the students' investigation of patterns, relationships, abstractions, and generalizations.

It is important for teachers to analyze the outcomes to identify what students need to know, understand, and be able to do. Teachers also need to consider opportunities they can provide for students to explain, apply, and transfer understanding to new situations. This reflection supports professional decision making and planning effective strategies to promote students' deeper understanding of mathematical ideas.

It is important that a mathematics learning environment include effective interplay of:

  • reflection and metacognition
  • exploration of patterns and relationships
  • sharing of ideas and problems
  • consideration of different perspectives
  • decision making
  • generalization and abstraction
  • verifying and proving
  • modeling and representing
  • making connections.

Mathematics is learned when students are engaged in strategic play with mathematical concepts and differing perspectives. When students learn mathematics by being told what to do, how to do it, and when to do it, they cannot make the strong connections necessary for learning to be meaningful, easily accessible, and transferable. The learning environment must be respectful of individuals and groups, fostering discussion and self-reflection, the asking of questions, the seeking of multiple answers, and the construction of meaning.


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Inquiry learning provides students with opportunities to build knowledge, abilities, and inquiring habits of mind that lead to deeper understanding of their world and human experience. The inquiry process focuses on the development of compelling questions, formulated by teachers and students, to motivate and guide inquiries into topics, problems, and issues related to curriculum content and outcomes.

Inquiry is more than a simple instructional method. It is a philosophical approach to teaching and learning, grounded in constructivist research and methods, which engages students in investigations that lead to disciplinary and transdisciplinary understanding.

Inquiry builds on students' inherent sense of curiosity and wonder, drawing on their diverse backgrounds, interests, and experiences. The process provides opportunities for students to become active participants in a collaborative search for meaning and understanding. Students who are engaged in inquiry:

  • construct deep knowledge and deep understanding rather than passively receiving it
  • are directly involved and engaged in the discovery of new knowledge
  • encounter alternative perspectives and conflicting ideas that transform prior knowledge and experience into deep understandings
  • transfer new knowledge and skills to new circumstances
  • take ownership and responsibility for their ongoing learning and mastery of curriculum content and skills.
  • (Adapted from Kuhlthau & Todd, 2008, p. 1)

Inquiry learning is not a step-by-step process, but rather a cyclical process, with various phases of the process being revisited and rethought as a result of students' discoveries, insights, and co-construction of new knowledge. The following graphic shows various phases of this cyclical inquiry process.

Inquiry prompts and motivates students to investigate topics within meaningful contexts. The inquiry process is not linear or lock-step, but is flexible and recursive. Experienced inquirers will move back and forth through the cyclical process as new questions arise and as students become more comfortable with the process.

Well formulated inquiry questions are broad in scope and rich in possibilities. They encourage students to explore, gather information, plan, analyze, interpret, synthesize, problem solve, take risks, create, conclude, document, reflect on learning, and develop new questions for further inquiry.

In mathematics, inquiry encompasses problem solving. Problem solving includes processes to get from what is known to discover what is unknown. When teachers show students how to solve a problem and then assign additional problems that are similar, the students are not problem solving but practising. Both are necessary in mathematics, but one should not be confused with the other. If the path for getting to the end situation has already been determined, it is no longer problem solving. Students too must understand this difference.

Creating Questions for Inquiry in Mathematics

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Teachers and students can begin their inquiry at one or more curriculum entry points; however, the process may evolve into transdisciplinary integrated learning opportunities, as reflective of the holistic nature of our lives and interdependent global environment. It is essential to develop questions that are evoked by students' interests and have potential for rich and deep learning. Compelling questions are used to initiate and guide the inquiry and give students direction for discovering deep understandings about a topic or issue under study.

The process of constructing inquiry questions can help students to grasp the important disciplinary or transdisciplinary ideas that are situated at the core of a particular curricular focus or context. These broad questions will lead to more specific questions that can provide a framework, purpose, and direction for the learning activities in a lesson, or series of lessons, and help students connect what they are learning to their experiences and life beyond school.

Effective questions in mathematics are the key to initiating and guiding students' investigations and critical thinking, problem solving, and reflection on their own learning. Questions such as:

  • "When would you want to add two numbers less than 100?"
  • "How do you know you have an answer?"
  • "Will this work with every number? Every similar situation?"
  • "How does your representation compare to that of your partner?"

are examples of questions that will move students' inquiry towards deeper understanding. Effective questioning is essential for teaching and student learning and should be an integral part of planning in mathematics. Questioning should also be used to encourage students to reflect on the inquiry process and the documentation and assessment of their own learning.

Questions should invite students to explore mathematical concepts within a variety of contexts and for a variety of purposes. When questioning students, teachers should choose questions that:

  • help students make sense of the mathematics.
  • are open-ended, whether in answer or approach. There may be multiple answers or multiple approaches.
  • empower students to unravel their misconceptions.
  • not only require the application of facts and procedures but encourage students to make connections and generalizations.
  • are accessible to all students in their language and offer an entry point for all students.
  • lead students to wonder more about a topic and to perhaps construct new questions themselves as they investigate this newly found interest.
  • (Schuster & Canavan Anderson, 2005, p. 3)

Reflection and Documentation of Inquiry

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An important part of any inquiry process is student reflection on their learning and the documentation needed to assess the learning and make it visible. Student documentation of the inquiry process in mathematics may take the form of reflective journals, notes, drafts, models, and works of art, photographs, or video footage. This documentation should illustrate the students' strategies and thinking processes that led to new insights and conclusions. Inquiry-based documentation can be a source of rich assessment materials through which teachers can gain a more in-depth look into their students' mathematical understandings.

It is important that students are required, and allowed to engage in, the communication and representation of their progress within a mathematical inquiry. A wide variety of forms of communication and representation should be encouraged and, most importantly, have links made between them. In this way, student inquiry into mathematical concepts and contexts can develop and strengthen student understanding.

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