Yesterday, a student gave me step-by-step directions to solve a Rubik’s Cube. I finished it, but had no idea what I was doing. At times, I just watched what he did and copied his moves without even looking at the cube in my hands.

When we were finished, I exclaimed, “I did it!”, received a high-five from the student and some even applauded. For a moment, I felt like I had accomplished something. That feeling didn’t last long. I asked the class how often they experience what I just did.

Is there an argument to be made that sometimes the conceptual understanding comes from repeating a procedure, then reflecting on it? Discovering/noticing patterns through repetition?

And I don’t know. The jist of the problem is that two soccer players are arguing about the perfection of one of their dabs. They consult a universal dabbing rulebook which says that in a perfect dab those triangles above must be right triangles. And it’s all pretty winking, right? It can’t be pseudocontext if it isn’t actually trying to be context in the first place, right? The judges give it a pass.

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.

The judges rule that this problem satisfies the first criterion for pseudocontext:

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

A question that might neutralize the pseudocontext is: “Can all of these smoke jumpers ride in the same plane together? How would you arrange them so the plane is properly balanced?”

Instead, the task here is to find mean, median, mode, standard deviation, first quartile, third quartile, the interquartile range, the maximum, the minimum, the variance, etc, etc.

Do you get my point? Yes, all of those operations could be performed on those numbers. We often assign all of the math that could be done in a context without asking ourselves, what math must be done in the context? What math does the context demand?”

Will you please give me the top three pieces of advice you have for the teachers of our youngest learners? We are K-6 and want to start now.

One, ask informal, relational questions (questioning, estimating, arguing, defining, etc.) as often as formal, operational questions (solving, calculating, simplifying).

Two, pose problems that have gaps in them – look up headless problems, tailless problems, and numberless problems, for three examples – and ask students to help you fill in those gaps. The most interesting problems are co-developed by teachers and students, not merely assigned in completed form by the teacher.

Three, before any explanation, create conditions that prepare students to learn from that explanation. These for example.

Let’s try to describe a big number using a small amount of syllables (Berry’s Paradox). For example, 777777 takes 20 syllables, but saying “777 times 1001” takes 15. For a number like “741” which is seven syllables, “Nine cubed plus twelve” is much better. More complicated expressions test our perception of order of operations. Have students come up with a scoring system to rank abbreviations.

I propose we add a representation to the holy trinity of graphs, equations, and tables: “backwards blue graphs.” Have a look.

Expert mathematicians and math teachers instantly see the uselessness of the backwards blue graph representation. It offers us no extra insight into or power over the data. But my suspicion is that many students feel that way about all the representations. They’re all the backwards blue graphs.

Students will dutifully and even capably create tables, equations, and graphs but do they understand the advantages that each one affords us? Or do they just understand that their grades depend on capably creating each representation?

At Desmos, we created Playing Catch-Up to put students in a place to experience the power of equations over other representations. Namely, equations offer us precision.

So we show students a scenario in which Julio Jones get a head start over Rich Eisen, but runs at half speed.

We ask students to extend a graph to determine when Rich will catch Julio.

We ask students to extend a table to answer the same question.

Finally we offer them these equations.

Our intent with this three-screen instructional sequence is to put teachers in a place to have a conversation with students about one advantage equations have over the other representations. They offer us more precision and confidence in our answer.

Without that conversation, graphs, tables, and equations all may as well be the backwards blue graphs.

Your Turn

The power of equations is precision. We put students in a place to experience that power by asking them to make predictions using the imprecise representations first.

In what ways are graphs uniquely powerful? Tables? How will you put students in a place to experience those powers?

Students should be able to approach a problem from several points of view and be encouraged to switch among representations until they are able to understand the situation and proceed along a path that will lead them to a solution. This implies that students view representations as tools that they can use to help them solve problems, rather than as an end in themselves.

I think an analogy here are the 3 ‘representations’ of location/directions provided by Google: a map, written directions, and street view. They all provide similar or at least related information but each offers advantages depending on the purpose and background knowledge of the user.

I’ve noticed that kids who get the click that they all are connected understand stuff down the road a lot better, so I build in explicit teaching around seeing those connections (where is the y-intercept in the table? how can I see the slope in the equation?). It would be neat if kids could color code and write on things in this exercise, but computers are not good at letting you add stuff like that.

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

Pseudocontext Saturday #5

Solving systems of equations (58%, 276 Votes)

Finding least common multiples (42%, 197 Votes)

Total Voters: 473

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Pseudocontext Submissions

Michelle Pavlovsky

This is may be the worst math problem I’ve seen in my life.

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.

Dan went for a run. Every 13th stride he sneezes. Every 17th stride he blinks. Every 5th stride a shiver runs down his spine thinking about his homework he has neglected to do. When will he shiver, blink and sneeze at the same time? (Ignore that it is impossible to sneeze with your eyes open.)