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## 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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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 —Â 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.

## [Pseudocontext Saturdays] Fish Tank

This Week’s Installment

Poll

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

[poll id=”10″]

(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: 3

Pseudocontext Submissions

Kimberly Robertson

Rules

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.)

Answer

This was a nail-biter between Team Commenters and Team Me this week, with Team Commenters narrowly tipping the scales in their favor.

The judges rule that this satisfies the second rule of pseudocontext:

Given a question, the assigned method isn’t a method most human beings would use to find it.

Reasonable people might wonder about the dimensions of a water tank. The judges rule that most human beings would use a tape or a stick or any other kind of measuring device to answer it, not a cubic polynomial.

I can’t think of any way to neutralize this pseudocontext. The number of actual contexts for cubic polynomials with non-zero quadratic and linear terms is vanishingly small.

Here is an activity I would much prefer to use to teach the construction of polynomials. It doesn’t involve the real world but it does ask students to do real work.

Featured Comment

One motif in pseudocontextual questions seems to be treating as a variable things that, you know, don’t vary. I have a funny video playing in my mind of some surprised fish watching the volume of their tank become negative. But happily the volume of that tank is not varying, inasmuch as it’s sides are made of glass.

## Shock and Disbelief in Math Class

Reader William Carey via email:

Last year I realized that Pre-Calculus is really a class about moving from the particular to the general. We take particular skills and ideas students are comfortable with – like solving a quadratic equation – and generalize them to as many mathematical objects as we can – solving all polynomial equations. As we worked our way through polynomials, we wanted to move from reasoning about particular quadratic equations like y = x2 + 2x + 1 to reasoning about all quadratic equations: y = ax2 + bx + c. For homework, the students had to graph about twenty quadratics with varying a, b, and c.

Then we got together to discuss the results in class. They remembered that a controls the “fatness” or “narrowness” of the parabola and sometimes flips it upside down. They remembered that c moves the parabola up and down. They weren’t totally sure what b did. A few students adamantly maintained that it moved the parabola left and right (with supporting examples). After about fifteen minutes of back and forth, we decided to go to Desmos and just animate b.

Shock and disbelief: the vertex traces out what looks like a parabola as b changes. Furious math and argument ensue. Ten minutes later, a student has what seems to be the parabola the vertex traces graphed in Desmos. Is it the right parabola? Why? Can we prove that? (We could and did!)

Previously: WTF Math Problems.

## [Pseudocontext Saturdays] Spaghetti Bridge

This Week’s Installment

Poll

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

[poll id=”9″]

(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

I’m kicking the number of options back up to three. Two options simply doesn’t give y’all the challenge I know you need.

Team Me: 4
Team Commenters: 3

Pseudocontext Submissions

John Gibson

I don’t know if this is pseudocontext, but I for sure don’t know under what circumstances anyone would wonder about resultant momentum. In my head right now it’s like wondering about the middle names of the people who manufactured that car. It feels like trivia! I’m not saying it is trivia, but I am wondering if someone can put me in a position where knowing how to calculate resultant momentum would feel like power rather than punishment.

Rules

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.)

Answer

The commenters took this one right on the nose. The pseudocontext was in the last place they looked.

The judges rule that this violates the first rule of pseudocontext:

Given a context, the assigned question isn’t a question most human beings would ask about it.

Moreover, I just don’t see any congruent triangles in the picture. None. I know I’ll see some if you widen the camera’s angle, but there aren’t any in the frame right now, which makes this a uniquely poor context.

The only way I can think to neutralize this pseudocontext:

Show students four spaghetti bridges. They have to decide which ones are fragile and which ones are strong. Understanding congruency somehow (waves hands) makes them more accurate in their decision-making.

Featured Comment

Dick Fuller:

I like physics. And math. One without the other is school.