[Pseudocontext Saturdays] Tornado!

This Week’s Installment


What mathematical skill is the textbook trying to teach with this image?

Pseudocontext Saturday #10

  • Calculating probabilities of independent events (69%, 238 Votes)
  • Interpreting bar graphs (20%, 70 Votes)
  • Calculating area of parallelograms (11%, 38 Votes)

Total Voters: 346

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(If you’re reading via email or RSS, you’ll need to click through to vote. Also, you’ll need to check that link tomorrow for the answer.)

Current Scoreboard

Team Me: 5
Team Commenters: 4

Pseudocontext Submissions

William Carey has offered two additional genres of pseudocontext that are worth your attention:


One motif in pseudocontextual questions seems to be treating as a variable things that, you know, don’t vary.


The car question follows a fascinating pattern that shows up in lots of physicsy work: it begs the question. Physicists like to measure things. Sometimes measuring something directly is tricky (or impossible), so we measure other things, and then calculate the thing we actually want.

Questions like that have as their givens the thing we can’t measure and ask us to calculate the thing that we can measure. It’s absolutely backwards.


Every Saturday, I post an image from a math textbook. It’s an image that implicitly or explicitly claims that “this is how we use math in the world!”

I post the image without its mathematical connection and offer three possibilities for that connection. One of them is the textbook’s. Two of them are decoys. You guess which connection is real.

After 24 hours, I update the post with the answer. If a plurality of the commenters picks the textbook’s connection, one point goes to Team Commenters. If a plurality picks one of my decoys, one point goes to Team Me. If you submit a mathematical question in the comments about the image that isn’t pseudocontext, collect a personal point.

(See the rationale for this exercise.)


The commenters bit down hard on the lure this time, folks. The correct answer – “calculating area of parallelograms” – was selected least.

Delicious pseudocontext, right? The judges all suffered massive strokes when they saw this problem so I couldn’t get their official ruling, but I don’t think it matters. This context fails the “Come on, really?” test for pseudocontext.

“This unpredictable force of nature is threatening a precisely-bounded parallelogram? Come on, really?”

How could we neutralize the pseudocontext? I would be thrilled to see a task that invited students to select and approximate important regions with various quadrilaterals, but let’s not lie about where our tools are useful.

Plates Without States

Hey history teacher-friends!

Lately, I’ve been interested in the math teaching opportunities that arise when we delete and then progressively reveal details of a task. Digital media offers us that luxury while paper denies it.

I saw an opportunity to apply the same approach in history and geography. I took the license plates from all fifty United States and removed explicit references to the state or its outline. Then Evan Weinberg turned it into an online quiz.

Feel free to send your students to that quiz, or to use the images themselves [full, deleted, animated] in any way you want. If you’re feeling obliging, stop by and let us know how it went in the comments.

My Winter Break in Recreational Mathematics

Chase Orton asked all of us, “What is your professional New Year’s resolution?

I said that I wanted to stay skilled as a math teacher. As much as I’d like to pretend I’ve still got it in spite of my years outside of the classroom, I know there aren’t any shortcuts here: I need to do more math and I need to do more teaching. I have plans for both halves of that goal.

In support of “doing more math,” I’ll periodically post about my recreational mathematics. Please a) critique my work, and b) shoot me any interesting mathematics you’re working on.

When Should You Bet Your Coffee?

Ken Templeton sent me an image from his local coffee shop.

Should you bet your free coffee or not? Under what circumstances?

This question offers such a ticklish application of the Intermediate Value Theorem:

If the bowl only has one other “Free Coffee” card in it, you’d want to bet your own card on the possibility of a year of free coffee. But if the bowl had one million cards in it, you’d want to hold onto your card. So somewhere in between one and one million, there is a number of cards where your decision switches. How do you figure out that number? (PS. I realize the IVT doesn’t hold for discrete functions like this one. Definitions offer us a lot of insight when we stretch them, though.)

I asked some of my fellow New Year’s Eve partygoers this question and one person offered a concise and intuitive explanation for her number, a number I personally had to calculate using algebraic manipulation. Someone else then did his best to translate some logistical and psychological considerations into mathematics. (eg. “Even if I win it all, I won’t likely go get a drink every day. Plus I’m risk averse.”) It was such an interesting conversation. Plus what great friends right?

Here’s my work and the 3-Act Task for download.

How Many Bottles of Coca-Cola Are in That Pool?

When I watched this video, I had to wonder, “How many bottles of Coca Cola did they have to buy to fill that pool?”

I tweeted the video’s creator and asked him for the dimensions of the pool.

12 feet across by 30 inches high,” he responded.

Even though the frame of the pool is a dodecagon, the pool lining itself seems roughly cylindrical. So I calculated the volume of the pool and performed some unit conversions to figure out an estimate of the number of 2-liter bottles of Coca Cola he and his collaborators would have to buy.

Here’s my work and the 3-Act Task for download.

How Do You Solve Zukei Puzzles?

Many thanks to Sarah Carter who collected all of these Japanese logic puzzles into one handout.

Carter describes the puzzles as useful for vocabulary practice, but I found myself doing a lot of other interesting work too. For instance, justification. The rhombus was a challenging puzzle for me, and this answer was tempting.

So it’s important for me to know the definition of a rhombus – every side congruent – but also to be able to argue from that definition.

And the challenge that tickled my brain most was pushing myself away from an unsystematic visual search towards a systematic process, and then to write that process down in a way a computer might understand.

For instance, with squares, I’d say:

Computer: pick one of the points. Then pick any other point. Take the distance between those two points and check if you find another point when you venture that distance out on a perpendicular line. If so, see if you can complete the square that matches those three points. If you can’t, move to the next pair.


  • What are your professional resolutions for 2017?
  • What recreational mathematics are you working on lately?
  • If any of you enterprising programmers want to make a Zukei puzzle solver, I’d love to see it.

2017 Jan 2. Ask and ye shall receive! I have Zukei solvers from Matthew Fahrenbacher, Jed, and Dan Anderson. They’re all rather different, each with its own set of strengths and weaknesses.

2017 Jan 2. Shaun Carter is another contender.

What’s Wrong with This Experiment?

If you’re the sort of person who helps students learn to design controlled experiments, you might offer them W. Stephen Wilson’s experiment in The Atlantic and ask for their critique.

First, Wilson’s hypothesis:

Wilson fears that students who depend on technology [calculators, specifically –dm] will fail to understand the importance of mathematical algorithms.

Next, Wilson’s experiment:

Wilson says he has some evidence for his claims. He gave his Calculus 3 college students a 10-question calculator-free arithmetic test (can you multiply 5.78 by 0.39 without pulling out your smartphone?) and divided the them into two groups: those who scored an eight or above on the test and those who didn’t. By the end of the course, Wilson compared the two groups with their performance on the final exam. Most students who scored in the top 25th percentile on the final also received an eight or above on the arithmetic test. Students at the bottom 25th percentile were twice as likely to score less than eight points on the arithmetic test, demonstrating much weaker computation skills when compared to other quartiles.

I trust my readers will supply the answer key in the comments.

BTW. I’m not saying there isn’t evidence that calculator use will inhibit a student’s understanding of mathematical algorithms, or that no such evidence will ever be found. I’m just saying this study isn’t that evidence.

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Scott Farrand:

The most clarifying thing that I can recall being told about testing in mathematics came from a friend in that business: you’ll find a positive correlation between student performance on almost any two math tests. So don’t get too excited when it happens, and beware of using evidence of correlation on two tests as evidence for much.

[Makeover] Systems of Equations

Here is the oldest kind of math problem that exists:

Some of you knew what kind of problem this was before you had finished the first sentence. You could blur your eyes and without reading the words you saw that there were two unknown quantities and two facts about them and you knew this was a problem about solving a system of equations.

Whoever wrote this problem knows that students struggle to learn how to solve systems and struggle to remain awake while solving systems. I presume that’s why they added a context to the system and it’s why they scaffolded the problem all the way to the finish line.

How could we improve this problem – and other problems like this problem?

I asked that question on Twitter and I received responses from, roughly speaking, two camps.

One group recommended we change the adjectives and nouns. That we make the problem more real or more relevant by changing the objects in the problem. For example, instead of analyzing an animated movie, we could first survey our classes for the movie genres they like most and use those in the problem.

This makeover is common, in my experience. I don’t doubt it’s effective for some students, particularly those students already adept at the formal, operational work of solving a system of equations through elimination. The work is already easy for those students, so they’re happy to see a more familiar context. But I question how much that strategy interests students who aren’t already adept at that work.

Another strategy is to ignore the adjectives and nouns and change the verbs, to change the work students do, to ask students to do informal, relational work first, and use it as a resource for the formal, operational work later.

This makeover is hard, in my experience. It’s especially hard if you long ago became adept at the formal, operational work of solving a system of equations through elimination. This makeover requires asking yourself, “What is the core concept here and what are early ways of understanding it?”

No adjectives or nouns were harmed during this makeover. Only verbs.

The theater you run charges $4 for child tickets and $12 for adult tickets.

  1. What’s a large amount of money you could make?
  2. What’s a small amount of money you could make?
  3. Okay, your no-good kid brother is working the cash register. He told you he made:
    • $2,550 on Friday
    • $2,126 on Saturday
    • $1,968 on Sunday

    He’s lying about at least one of those. Which ones? How do you know?

This makeover claims that the core concept of systems is that they’re about relationships between quantities. Sometimes we know so many relationships between those quantities that they’re only satisfied and solved by one set of those quantities. Other times, lots of sets solve those relationships and other times those relationships are so constrained that they’re never solved.

So we’ve deleted one of the relationships here. Then we’ve ask students to find solutions to the remaining relationship by asking them for a small and large amount of money. There are lots of possible solutions. Then we’ve asked students to encounter the fact that not every amount of money can be a solution to the relationship. (See: Kristin Gray, Kevin Hall, and Julie Reulbach for more on this approach.)

From there, I’m inclined to take Sunday’s sum (one he wasn’t lying about) and ask students how they know it might be legitimate. They’ll offer different pairs of child and adult tickets. “My no-good kid brother says he sold 342 tickets. Can you tell me if that’s possible?”

Slowly they’ll systematize their guessing-and-checking. It might be appropriate here to visualize their guessing-and-checking on a graph, and later to help students understand how they could have used algebraic notation to form that visualization quickly, at which point the relationships start to make even more sense.

If we only understand math as formal, operational work, then our only hope for helping a student learn that work is lots and lots of scaffolding and our only hope for helping her remain awake through that work is a desperate search for a context that will send a strong enough jolt of familiarity through her cerebral cortex.

That path is wide. The narrow path asks us to understand that formal, operational ideas exists first as informal, relational ideas in the mind of the student, that our job is devise experiences that help students access those ideas and build on them.

BTW. Shout out to Marian Small and other elementary educators for helping me see the value in questions that ask about “big” and “small” answers. The question is purposefully imprecise and invites students to start poking at the edges of the relationship.