This Week’s Skill
This is too big for a blog post, obviously.
What a Theory of Need Recommends
If proof is the aspirin, then doubt is the headache.
In school mathematics, proof can feel like a game full of contrived rules and fragile pieces. Each line of the proof must interlock with the others just so and the players must write each of them using tortured, unnatural syntax. The saddest aspect of this game of proof is that the outcome of the game is already known every time.
- Prove angle B is congruent to angle D.
- Prove triangle BCD is congruent to triangle ACB.
- Decide if angle B and angle C are congruent. If they are, prove why they are. If they aren’t, prove why they aren’t.
- Prove line l and line m are parallel.
- Prove that corresponding angles are congruent.
One of those proof prompts is not like the others. Its most important difference is that it leaves open the very question of its truth, where the other prompts leave no doubt.
The act of proving has many purposes. It doesn’t do us any favors to pretend there is only one. But one purpose for proof that is frequently overlooked in school mathematics is the need to dispel doubt, or as Harel put it, the “need for certainty“:
The need for certainty is the need to prove, to remove doubts. One’s certainty is achieved when one determines–by whatever means he or she deems appropriate– that an assertion is true. Truth alone, however, may not be the only need of an individual, who may also strive to explain why the assertion is true.
So instead of giving students a series of theorems to prove about a rhombus (implicitly verifying in advance that those theorems are true) consider sowing doubt first. Consider giving each student a random rhombus, or asking your students to construct their own rhombus (if you have the time, patience, and capacity for heartache that activity would require).
Invite them to measure all the segments and angles in their shapes. Do they notice anything? Have them compare their measurements with their neighbors’. Do they notice anything now?
Now create a class list of conjectures. Interject your own, if necessary, so that the conjectures vary on two dimensions: true & false; easy to prove & hard to prove.
“Diagonals intersect at perpendicular angles” is true, but not as easy to prove as “opposite sides are congruent,” which is also true. “A rhombus can never have four right angles” meanwhile is false and easy to disprove with a counterexample. “A rhombus can never have side lengths longer than 100 feet” is false but requires a different kind of disproof than a counterexample.
With this cumulative list of conjectures, ask your students now to decide which of them are true and which of them are false. Ask your students to try to disprove each of them. Try to draw a rhombus, for example, even a sketch, where the diagonals don’t intersect at perpendicular angles.
If they can’t draw a counterexample, then we need to prove why a counterexample is impossible, why the conjecture is in fact true.
This approach accomplishes several important goals.
- It motivates proof. When I ask teachers about their rationale for teaching proof, I hear most often that it builds students’ skills in logic or that it trains students’ mind. (“I tell them, when you see lawyers on TV arguing in front of a judge, that’s a proof,” one teacher told me last week.) Forgive me. I’m not hopeful that our typical approach to proof accomplishes any of those transfer goals. I’m also unconvinced that lawyers (or even mathematicians) would persist in their professions if the core job requirement were working with two-column proofs.
- It lowers the threshold for participation in the proof act. Measuring, noticing, and speculating are easier actions (and more interesting too) than trying to recall the abbreviation “CPCTC.”
- It allows students to familiarize themselves with formal vocabulary and with the proof act. Students I taught would struggle to prove that “opposite sides of a rhombus are congruent.” This is because they’re essentially reading a foreign language, but also because mathematical argumentation, even the informal kind, is a foreign act. Offering students the chance to prove trivial conjectures puts them in arm’s reach of the feeling of insight which all non-trivial proofs require.
- It makes proving easier. When students try to disprove conjectures by drawing lots of different rhombi, they stand a better chance of noticing the aspects of the rhombus that vary and don’t vary. They stand a better chance of noticing that they’re drawing an awful lot of isosceles triangles, for example, which may become an essential line in their formal proof.
Resolving this list of conjectures about the rhombus — proving and disproving each of them — will take more than a single period. Not every proof needs this kind of treatment, certainly. But occasionally, and especially early on, we should help students understand why we bother with the proof act, why proof is the aspirin for a particular kind of headache.
Next Week’s Skill
Simplifying sums of rational expressions with unlike denominators. Like this worked example from PurpleMath:
If that simplified form is aspirin, then how do we create the headache?
BTW. For anybody not on board this “headache -> aspirin” thing, I want to clarify: totally fine. Thanks for contributing anyway. But please name your priors. Why that task instead of another? Some of these tasks you all suggest in the comments seem great and full of potential, but tasks aren’t generative of other tasks. I need fewer interesting tasks and more interesting theories about what make tasks tick. These kinds of theories, when properly beaten into shape, have the capacity to generate lots of other tasks.
BTW. Scott Farrar chases this same idea along a different path.
I think this latches onto the structure of the geometry course: we develop tool (A) to study concept (B). But curriculum can get too wrapped up in tool A losing sight of the very reason for its development. So, we lay a hook by presenting concept B first.
We almost always do an always-sometimes-never to motivate a particular proof. Mine are usually teacher-generated (here’s a list of 5 statements about rhombi — tell me if they are always, sometimes, or never true). Then we prove the always and the never.
Michael Paul Goldenberg and Michael Serra offer some very convincing criticism of the ideas in this post.