Ultimate Cosmic Power in an Itty-Bitty Thinking Space

“Give me any combination of two numbers that have a sum of seven,” I said to my students. One person offered, “Two, five,” which I wrote on the board as (2, 5). I asked for a few more and got (5, 2), (1, 6) and (0, 7).

“Good,” I praised, “now give me ALL the combinations of two numbers that have a sum of seven.” They chuckled. “I want them all, and I want you to write them down.” The students were hesitant, because they knew there are an infinite number of pairs that have a sum of seven. So I challenged one of them to a race. “You write them down on your paper, I’ll write them on the board. Nobody goes to lunch, until one of us is done. Ready, Go!” I scribbled on the board x + y = 7. “Done!”

They didn’t buy it. “I have just written ALL the combinations of two numbers that have a sum of seven. Since you don’t believe me, I’ll do it a different way. In fact, I’ll take you all on. All of you write down combinations of numbers, that way you get done in one-thirtieth of the time, and I’ll still woop ya. Ready, Go!” I quickly sketched the graph of x + y = 7. “Done!”

This goofy little exercise was intended to impart the idea that mathematics gives us the ability to represent an infinite number of elements in a finite time with little effort. I spread my arms wide in front of the class and exclaimed “Ultimate cosmic power…” then brought my hands to rest on a student’s head and continued, “…in an itty-bitty thinking space.” (A play on the Genie’s words from the Disney movie Aladdin.) No offense to the student, but our brains are not very big. Yet, we were able to take all the pairs of numbers whose sum is seven, shove them all in our heads at once and think about them all at the same time. The ability to then communicate them to the world outside of our heads using equations and graphs is what makes mathematics the Ultimate Cosmic Power.

However, most people don’t share in our awe of this power. I believe that is because we never initiate them into our mathematical club. We keep students on the other side of the room while they watch us speak club code and give the secret club handshake, but we never let them in. I have proof of this …

Thoughts on Math by the Uninitiated

From an Algebra 2 student who was just kidding, but his joke reflects how many people perceive the purpose of math:

 Algebra would be a lot easier if they just told you what x was.
– Scott, Class of ’94

For a moment, I thought this next one was kind of cute when a student had just simplified 3x + 2x to equal 5x:

Only in math do you put two things together and get a smaller thing.
– Neal, Class of ’99

Then I realized … In math we don’t combine to make a smaller thing; we combine to make an equal thing!

Then there was the English Teacher who stopped me in the hallway one day, visibly irritated, and poking me in the chest:

You math teachers aren’t very good. My whole life you have been asking people to find x. Why can’t you find it yourselves?

I don’t know what set her off on that day, but I do know one thing about the three people who made the statements above. They all see the sole purpose of math as a cognitive Easter egg hunt. They close their eyes, while the teacher hides the variable. Ready, set, go. Praises and smiles when the basket is full.

They have no appreciation for the true beauty and power of Algebra, because we never initiated them into the club. So how do we teach them the secret handshake?

The Initiation Rites

  • Context
  • Multiple Representations
  • Complexity
  • Abstract Generalizations

Context

Too often we jump straight to the naked math problem. For example,  we ask students to graph y = 2x + 1 or evaluate 2 – 5, without offering any kind of context. Context gives the students something to cognitively hold onto while they are grappling with the math concepts. Take for instance, the teaching of negative integers. In the Wallflowers lesson, students are asked to mathematically represent scenarios that they can relate to (a high school dance). While these scenarios are a bit contrived (girls are positive and boys are negative), students can “see” how a balance of positives and negatives equals zero, taking away negatives leaves behind positives, etc. From here it is useful to go to other contexts that are more applicable. The Postman Always Ring Twice relates positive values to checks and negative numbers to bills, showing how truly “subtracting a negative is the same as adding a positive.” By presenting the context first and then asking the students to represent it symbolically, we give them a framework in which to think when eventually presented with the naked math problem.

Multiple Representations

Thoughts on Math by One of the Initiated

I once met a Calculus teacher in Massachusetts who was originally from India. She was very distraught about teaching in America, She said that she kept getting complaints from both students and parents about her teaching style. She said that all she was doing was teaching the way they do in India. When I asked her to characterize the style for me, she said that in India there is a saying:

If you know how to do one problem inside and out, you can do a hundred just like it.
– Seheti, Math Teacher from India

I could easily see the contrast. In India they teach students a hundred ways to do one problem. In America we teach one way to do a hundred problems.

To further make Seheti’s point, I had a conversation with my daughter’s third grade teacher on this very point. She asked me:

Thoughts on Math by the Uninitiated

How would you do this problem?
              3,165
             -2,987

Of course, she gave me this example because it requires multiple borrowing in a traditional algorithm. I told her, however, that I don’t see it as a subtraction problem; I see it as an addition problem. I have 165 above 3,000 and 13 below 3, 000, therefore, 165 plus 10 plus 3 was 178 … with no borrowing. Her response was, “But why would you go through all that trouble?” I chuckled at the unintentional irony, placed the pencil on the paper and challenged, ” Do your method without picking up the pencil.”

These examples show the strength in teaching students Multiple Representations of a problem, and the weakness of teaching only one method. In the Candy Bars lesson, multi-link cubes are used to demonstrate why we need a common denominator when adding fractions. Fractions, after all, are merely relations to the whole. Operations on fractions can only be done then on the same size whole!

When students are first asked to show one-half of a candy bar with the cubes they put together two cubes of different colors. When asked to “build” two-thirds of a candy bar with the cubes, the construct a stick of three cubes, one being of a different color. When prompted to “show” what fraction of the candy bar they have if they are given portions, they naturally connect the two to make one, which shows two-fifths, which is exactly how they incorrectly complete the algorithm for adding fractions: they add both numerators and denominators.

When corrected and told that the bars must be the same size and still show one-half and two-thirds, the students independently build sticks of 6 cubes each (three of one are colored, two of the other are colored). When then pressed to now tell us how much “of the same size candy bar they now have, they combine the colored cubes, but keep the stick the same 6-cube length and present … five-sixths, which is correct. Publically generating an algorithm that now represents what we do is easy, and the cubes offer a model for students to fall back on in the event that they forget the procedure.

Complexity

Too often we think that our job is to always make math simple for our students. This initiative then leads us to break problems down to their tiny, separate parts, and we never ask the students to put it all together. This point was made by Tad Watanabe in NCTM’s Mathematics Teacher (Vol 93, No 1, p 31). Mr. Watanabe showed a high school entrance exam from Japan. It had only 7 problems. One of them is displayed on the right. (Click to enlarge the image.)

Take some time to do the above problem. It puts to shame what we expect from our 8th graders: “There are 10 marbles in the box. 3 are red. What is the probability of drawing a red marble?” The Japanese expect there students to do complex problems, therefore, they teach them to do complex problems. We Americans often feel that we have failed if we pose students with difficult problems. One would have to look long and far to find an Algebra final exam in the United States with the level of complexity of the Japanese example above. It is not that Japanese students are more capable than American students and therefore, they can do these kinds of problems. The Japanese students are more capable because they are regularly asked to do these kind of problems!

To further the point on Complexity, I would like to share the story of the American math teacher who visited schools in Bulgaria. When asked to contrast math education between Europe and the U.S., he said he could do so by showing a typical question from both countries:

Typical Geometry Question in Bulgaria: Draw a triangle. Draw a semicircle on each side. Within each semicircle , inscribe the rectangle of the greatest area. Draw the lines that pass through the centers perpendicular to the side of the triangle. Prove that these lines are concurrent.

Typical Geometry Question in America: Draw a triangle.

Abstract Generalizations

Finally, the ultimate in Ultimate Cosmic Power: Abstract Generalizations. In other words, students are asked to model their world mathematically. As when I ask my daughter and her friend when they were in third grade, “Your class has 20 students. How many are boys and how many are girls ? How many boys and girls might be in another class of 20 students?” We went through several scenarios, and then I asked, “If we allow b to represent the number of boys, and g to represent the number of girls in a class of 20 students, what would you say about the the number of boys, girls and the total students?” They said “b plus a equals 20.” I then showed how to write b + g = 20, and they agreed. There were several abstract representations going on with the girls. Words and an equation, and a brief encounter with data.

The Rising Water lesson does the same thing, but more formally. It first poses a context in words (one representation): A swimming pool contains water 10 cm deep. The water is rising 3 cm per minute. The students are to then generate a table of values, an equation and a graph for this scenario (3 more representations). The objective of the lesson is to teach students that all four representations describe the same relationship between two quantities (time and water depth). The students are then asked to generate their own scenarios, with the four representations. The more that students are asked to create their own models, the better capable they will be when they are presented with one.

So our Initiation Rites into our math club are these four components of Ultimate Cosmic Power (Context, Multiple Representations, Complexity and Abstract Generalizations). We will go back to these constantly in our discussions, as well as to the Four and a Half Principles of Quality Math Instruction posted previously. To show that there is hope in teaching in this manner, I share with you a statement from a former student at the end of the year.

Thoughts on Math by One of the Initiated

Poetry is the language of love. Math is the language of everything else.
– John, Class of ’99

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Q&A: Lessons and Homework in a Activities-Based Classroom

Question:

I really have the desire to turn my classroom into a hands-on, activities-based classroom, but am still struggling with how to cover it all. I guess I am still not sure how to “get away” from the “drill-and-practice” method. I was curious as to how much homework you assign (on average) and whether or not it was from a textbook or more activity-type problems. I was wondering if you would be able to give me a sort of play-by-play of some of the topics you teach. For example, Graphing Linear Equations. What do you do from day to day and do you ever use the textbook and the traditional problems therein?
Rachel Rosales (Owensboro, KY)

Answer:

In Textbook Free: Kicking the Habit, I give a very detailed synopsis of a textbook-free lesson. My math department at Great Oak High School is known for not following the textbook. We still have students read and do problem sets from the book, but our lessons are not bound to it’s pages. I have been teaching like this for over ten years now, and it has been a wonderfully liberating experience for me, and a productive experience for my students. In short, I can share with you the following.

First off, change your focus. American teachers believe that a day in the classroom revolves around the homework assignment rather than around the lesson. Plan a lesson by asking, “What is the main concept that the students need to understand?” This is different from the tradition of asking, “What do they need to know to get through this problem set tonight?” Then find/create a few problems that address the misunderstanding that students have of that concept. The purpose of the lesson should be to get students to understand what they are doing and not just mimic what you are doing.

Regarding assignments though, I consider “homework” assignments different than “project” assignments. Projects are done about once a week in class, for which the students may go home needing to complete or expand upon. Homework is assigned about 2-3 times a week (never on the weekends), and is usually a handful of questions that expand upon the ideas addressed in class. I usually save the practice/drill problems for the warm-ups the following day (these are also few in number). In my lower level classes, I never assign homework. My school district’s final exam results show that my students are not hindered by sparing them the grief of the drill and kill routine. In fact, my school is our district leader in high school state math scores, and we give the least amount of homework.

In regards to Graphing Linear Equations: I want my students to understand the idea of rate (slope), initial value (y-intercept), what a linear relationship is and how to interept the graph of a linear equation. An example of how I might teach this concept is described below: I usually start with discussing the idea of rate. The lesson centers around the Tic-Tac question:

The following equation represents the relationship of the number of Tic-Tacs eaten, t, to the number of kisses received, k, on a date: k = 2t + 1.

The students are required to describe in writing what the equation says about the scenario. (e.g. “You receive two kisses for every one Tic-Tac you eat, plus you get a guaranteed kiss on the door step at the end of the date.”) They are also required to show a table of values and graph of the scenario. Their homework is to take a new table of values and write an equation and graph relating to the table. Then I take them through Jennifer Sawyer’s “Rising Water” project which has the students generate a variety of linear situations and then compare their equations and graphs to reveal the role of the slope and y-intercept. I follow this up with the “Speeding Ticket Investigation” to reinforce graphing. At this point, we take notes. I usually provide a graphing organizer and take a few days to formalize procedures like writing an equation given slope and a point, given two points, writing equations from graphs, etc. I use the lapboards quite a bit here. I finish with the “Jogging Hare,” by going through the lesson as a class with one set of numbers, then the next day giving the same problem with a new set of values as an assessment. (They may use their notes from the previous run through).  If you teach line of best fit, then I would go one step further with “Cool Shoes.” This usually takes about three weeks, and then I generally spend a couple of days reviewing before the test. (4 weeks total).


Chris Shore, Editor

Q&A: Teaching Students with Poor Math Skills, a High Failure Rate, and Little Motivation

Question:

I teach in an inner city high school with heterogeneous classes (in which there are all skill levels), poor attendance, a transient population (students enter and leave all year long), and sadly, many students who, due to different social problems, are unmotivated to learn. The projects which I have seen in your journal assume basic math skills. Unfortunately many of my students have poor skills, and yet are expected to pass Algebra I (which is our lowest level math offered). Needless to say, we have a high failure rate in our school. I would love to do some type of projects with these students, so if you have any other ideas, I would be very happy to hear them.
Marie Feragne (North Providence, Rhode Island)

Answer:

I have yet to find a teacher anywhere that feels that students come to the course with the proper fundamental math skills. Albiet, your situation is tougher than most. Attack the problem of basic skills; but instead of stopping to reteach them, review the skills briefly. In our Algebra classes at Great Oak High School, we commit Mondays to practicing the arthimetic skills needed for the topics that week. (i.e. integers when solving equations, fractions when simplifying rational expressions). Don’t be afraid to use a project or activity. By constantly presenting complex problems, the students will acquire the necessary skills quicker than you think.

Work hard at getting kids to understand the concepts behind the mathematics. It has been our experience the students have an easier time understanding concepts than memorizing algorithms.

Do more activities in the classroom, and assign less homework. Dynamic lessons are themselves a motivating factor in the classroom. Think of all the faculty meetings and professional development sessions you’ve been through. What could have been done to engage your mind more. The same answer will work for your students.

As far as motivating students, nobody has found the complete answer to that one. We have laid out in detail our grading policies in an article “Nuts & Bolts.” Here is a brief glimpse of two key components, both the carrot and the stick, of that grading system:

  1. Cumulative Tests & Quizzes: This requires both teacher and students to revisit material continually through the course, instead of just “testing & forgetting.” It also offers the slower student an opportunity to acquire necessary skills. The incentive that we offer is that the student test score (50% of the overall grade) is assigned the test average or the most recent test, whichever is higher. This encourages students to not quit, and offers a light at the end of the tunnel, which is rare in traditional grading systems.
  2. Incomplete Policy: The student must submit an appropriate product for each major project assigned, or the student will receive an incomplete which equates to an ‘F’ on the report card. In other words, the students may not skip major assignments.


Chris Shore, Editor

Lesson: Get Your Kicks on Route 66 (Preview)

This is an example of the many lessons available only to MPJ Monthly subscribers.

Route 66 ThumbnailRapid Roy drives the highway to demonstrate that absolute value is the distance from zero.

SUBJECT: Pre-Algebra
TOPICS: Absolute value equations, inequalities
PAGES: 3
Preview Page 1


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