The Elusive Relationship of x & y

“Ali has \$10 dollars and spends \$5 dollars every 2 days.” That was the simple scenario offered for the linear relationship that my students were working with at the time. I was having them write equations from various contexts in order to emphasize the concepts of slope and y-intercept. Boy, did I unravel a serious issue.

Typically, what is asked when dealing with slope-intercept form of lines is somemthing like: “What is the slope and y-intercept of the following equation:  y = -(5/2)x + 10?” Then those values are to be used to graph the equation. The hope commonly is that the students have been paying enough attention to know that the “slope is the number in front of the x.” The frustration commonly is that students still can’t identify the slope from the equation. From a context, the slope is even more difficult to identify, like with the Ali Scenario above. What I found out through a very unique question is why it is so difficult for them.

In the previous contexts that I had offered them, the students would see only two numbers. “Sally has 1 friend and makes 2 new friends every week,” as an example. I was asking them to identify the constant and the rate of change in examples like this. That was a struggle, but they eventually started to get it. When they ran across the Ali Scenaro, I was expecting the three numbers that were representing only two values to cause issues. I was correct. But it was their response to my next question that opened my eyes: “What two quantities are related here?”

I got blank stares. So I asked them to write down the two words that represent the quantities being related in the given context. When I looked at their answers, I was shocked to find the two words that over half the class had written down: spend & has!

Really?! I wrote those two words on the board, and asked them, “Does it make sense that the number of spends that I have determines the number of ‘hasses’ that I have?” I noticed everyone’s attention in class was riveted on the two words on the board. They knew what I was saying didn’t make sense, but they were struggling to reconcile the issue, so I asked another question. “What determines what in this scenario?’ A student finally offered, “days determines dollars.” Yes!

We had to wrap up the day, since I had spent so much of the period mining this one context for mathematical understanding. So the next day, I started the lesson by posting the same Ali Scenario and the two sets of words, “spends & has” and “days & dollars.” We revisited the idea that even though the sentence claims that “Ali spends and Ali has,” we are looking for words that represent numbers. Then we can use those numbers and a few symbols (variables, operations and equal sign), to write an equation (an abstract generalization) to represent the relationship. That equation (like the scenario and eventually the graph) represents an infinite number of combinations of “days & dollars.”

The students now easily identified 10 as the constant and wrote it properly as the y-intercept of the equation. The trouble was in dealing with a slope that was represented by a negative fraction, which was the issue that I originally intended the scenario to pose. However, my adventure into the minds of my Algebra students helped remind me that we too often have them leap from the concrete to the abstract, or that we skip the concrete altogether. How many of the millions of Algebra students in this country are graphing linear equations, yet have no idea that x and y actually represent a quantitative relationship? Focusing on getting the answer correct (“Graph this by starting at this number and counting up and over this number.”) often times bypasses the ultimate goal: mathematical understanding.

Standard & Slope-Intercept Forms Don’t Play Nice

We have contexts for equations in slope-intercept form:

Johnny has 4 friends and makes 3 new friends every 2 weeks.
f = 3/2w + 4

We have contexts for equations in standard form:

Adult tickets cost \$5 each and student tickets cost \$3 each, for a total of \$150.
5a + 3s = 150

And we ask students to convert from one form to another.

f = 3/2w + 4        to        3w – 2f = -8
and
5a + 3s = 150       to        s = –5/3 a + 50

But you know what doesn’t convert very well? … the context from one form to another.

Take Johnny’s Friends for example. The 3/2 means 3 friends every 2 weeks, and the constant represents the 4 friends that he started with. After converting to standard form, what do the coefficients 3 and -2 represent? What does the constant -2 represent? Maybe the context is there, but a typical algebra student just isn’t going to take the time find it, or maybe the context was lost in the conversion. The key to the question (but not to any viable answer) is in the units. If we apply some quasi dimensional analysis here:

f = 3/2w + 4
friends = (friends/week)weeks +  friends
friends = friends +  friends
friends = friends

Check. Now try our quasi dimensional analysis on the standard form conversion: 3w – 2f = -8. Say what? Exactly! We can do it with our Ticket equation, though:

5a + 3s = 150
(dollars/ticket)tickets + (dollars/ticket)tickets = dollars
dollars +  dollars = dollars
dollars = dollars

Check again. And the context here actually converts somewhat. We can say that the equation s = –5/3a + 50 tells us that the number of student tickets is equivalent to fifty total tickets minus five-thirds of every adult ticket. If you can hang with that, try it on the following context.

Buddy sells cupcakes for \$2 dollars each and brownies for \$1 each, for a total of \$14.
2c + b = 14

When you convert  this equations to b = -2c + 14, the 14 miraculously changes from representing dollars to representing number of brownies.

While the context might get lost in the translation between these forms of an equation, I know from my mathematics experience that there is still usefulness in being able to move fluidly from one form to another. In fact, to a mathematician, context is often burdensome. The beauty of naked math problems is that their abstraction transcends an infinite number of contexts. I just don’t think that is where you want the typical algebra student to start.

Lesson: Rising Water

Show that words, data, equations and graphs ares different ways to represent the same thing.

SUBJECT: Algebra
TOPICS: Linear relationships, dependent and independent variables, linear equations and graphs, slope, x- and y-intercepts, slope-intercept form of a linear equation
PAGES: 4