Category: headaches

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Recipes for Surprising Mathematics

What does it take to ask students a question like this?


A poker face? A bit of malice? Nitsa Movshovits-Hadar argues [pdf] that it requires only the ability to trick yourself into forgetting that you know every triangle has the same interior angle sum. “Suppose we do not know it,” she writes, which is easier said than done.

The premise of her article is that “… all school theorems, except possibly a very small number of them, possess a built-in surprise, and that by exploiting this surprise potential their learning can become an exciting experience of intellectual enterprise to the students.”

This is such a delightful paper – extremely readable and eminently practical. Without knowing me, Movshovits-Hadar took several lessons that I love, but which seemed to me totally disparate, and showed me how they connect, and how to replicate them. I’m pretty sure I was grinning like an idiot the whole way through this piece.

[via Danny Brown]

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Not easy for math teachers to do!

Kent Haines:

What if you asked two questions: which triangle has the longest perimeter and which triangle has the largest angle sum? It might clarify what can change in a triangle and what cannot. Also it hides the surprise better. If you teach via surprise consistently, kids start looking for the punchline.

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Elementary may actually have an advantage here! We play these games all the time. Some favorites:

Draw me a two-sided quadrilateral
Draw me a triangle with three right angles (or three obtuse angles)
(We have a manipulative that consist of little plastic sticks that snap together to build things)–Build me a triangle with the red stick (6″), the purple stick (1″) and the green stick (2″ )

Once the whole class is convinced they can’t you can get at why and then writing a rule for it. There is nothing an 8 year old likes better than proving the teacher wrong.

Ethan Hall:

Theorems and formulae in textbooks should be marked with a “spoiler alert”.

Math: Improve the Product Not the Poster


Danny Brown has expressed an interest in teaching mathematics that is relevant to students, relevant in important, sociological ways especially. This puts him in a particular bind with mathematics like Thales’ Theorem, which seems neither important nor relevant.


Danny Brown:

Here is Thales’ theorem. Every student in the UK must learn this theorem as part of the Maths GCSE. You are explaining Thales’ theorem, when one of the students in your class asks, “When will we ever need this in real life?” How might you respond?

He proceeds to offer several possible responses and then, with admirable empathy for teenagers, rebut them. Brown finds none of our best posters for math particularly compelling. You know the ones.

  • Math is everywhere.
  • Math develops problem solving skills.
  • Math is beautiful.
  • Etc.

So instead of fixing our posters, let’s fix the product itself.

Brown’s premise is that students are listening to him “explaining Thales’ theorem.” Let’s question that premise for a moment. Is that the only or best way to introduce students to that proof? [2016 Jun 3. Brown has informed me that explanation is not his preferred pedagogy around proof and I have no reason not to take him at his word. So feel free to swap out “Brown” in the rest of this post with your recollection of nearly every university math professor you’ve ever had.]

Among other purposes, every proof is the answer to a question. Every proof is the rejection of doubt. It isn’t clear to me that Brown has developed the question or planted the doubt such that the answer and the explanation seem necessary to students.

So instead of starting with the explanation of an answer, let’s develop the question instead.

Let’s ask students to create three right triangles, each with the same hypotenuse. Thales knows what our students might not: that a circle will pass through all of those vertices.


Let’s ask them to predict what they think it will look like when we lay all of our triangles on top of each other.

Let’s reveal what several hundred people’s triangles look like and ask students to wonder about them.


My hypothesis is that we’ll have provoked students to wonder more here than if we simply ask students to listen to our explanation of why it works.


To test that hypothesis, I ran an experiment that uses Twitter and the Desmos Activity Builder and is pretty shot through with methodological flaws, but which is suggestive nonetheless, and which is also way more than you oughtta expect from a quickie blog post.

I asked teachers to send their students to a link. That link randomly sends students to one of two activities. In the control activity, students click slide by slide through an explanation of Thales’ theorem. In the experimental activity, students create and predict like I’ve described above.

At the end of both treatments, I asked students “What questions do you have?” and I coded the resulting questions for any relevance to mathematics.

77 students responded to that final prompt in the experimental condition next to 47 students in the control condition. 47% of students in the experimental group asked a question next to 30% of students in the control group. (See the data.)

This suggests that interest in Thales’ theorem doesn’t depend strictly on its social relevance. (Both treatments lack social relevance.) Here we find that interest depends on what students do with that theorem, and in the experimental condition they had more interesting options than simply listening to us explain it.

So let’s invite students to stand in Thales’ shoes, however briefly, and experience similar questions that led Thales to sit down and wonder “why.” In doing so, we honor our students as sensemakers and we honor math as a discipline with a history and a purpose.

BTW. For another example of this pedagogical approach to proof, check out Sam Shah’s “blermions” lesson.

BTW. Okay, study limitations. (1) I have no idea who my participants are. Some are probably teachers. Luckily they were randomized between treatments. (2) I realize I’m testing the converse of Thales’ theorem and not Thales’ theorem itself. I figured that seeing a circle emerge from right triangles would be a bit more fascinating than seeing right triangles emerge from a circle. You can imagine a parallel study, though. (3) I tried to write the explanation of Thales’ theorem in conversational prose. If I wrote it as it appears in many textbooks, I’m not sure anybody would have completed the control condition. Some will still say that interest would improve enormously with the addition of call and response questions throughout, asking students to repeat steps in the proof, etc. Okay. Maybe.

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Danny Brown responds in the comments.

Michael Ruppel responds to the charge that Thales theorem isn’t important mathematics:

As to the previous commenter, Thales’ theorem is not a particularly important piece of content in and of itself, but it’s one of my favorite proofs for students to build. It requires careful attention to definitions and previously-learned theorems as well as a bit of creativity. (Drawing that auxiliary line.) Personally, my favorite part of the proof is that students don’t solve for a or b, and in fact have no knowledge of what a and b are. but they prove that a+b=90. The proof is a different flavor than they are used to.

Creating a Need for Coordinate Parentheses & Combining Like Terms

Our first approach in preparing a new lesson is often to ask, “Where does this skill apply in the world of work or in the world outside the classroom?” There may well be a great answer for some skills, but this strategy generalizes very poorly to lots of mathematics. So instead, I try first to ask myself, “Why did we invent this skill? How does this skill resolve the limits of older skills? If this skill is aspirin, then what is the headache and how do I create it?”

Two examples from my recent past.

Combining Like Terms

Why did we invent the skill of combining like terms in an expression? Why not leave the terms uncombined? Maybe the terms are fine! Why disturb the terms?

One reason to combine like terms is that it’s easier to perform operations on the terms when they’re combined. So let’s put students in a place to experience that use:

Evaluate for x = -5:

3x + 5 + 2x2 – 7 + 8x – 5x2 – 11x + 4 – 5x + 3x2 + 4 + 3x – 6 + 2x + x2

Put it on an opener. The expression simplifies to x2, giving students an enormous incentive to learn to combine like terms before evaluating.

[I’m grateful to Annie Forest for bringing the example to mind. She also adds a context, if that’s what you’re into.]


When students first learn to graph points, the parentheses are the first convention they throw out the window. And it’s hard to blame them. If I told you to graph the point 2, 5, would you need the parentheses to know the point I’m talking about? No.

So why did mathematicians invent parentheses? What purpose do they serve, assuming that purpose isn’t “tormenting middle school students thousands of years in the future.”

It turns out that, while it’s very easy to graph a single point with or without parentheses, graphing lots of points becomes very difficult without the parentheses. So let’s put students in a place to experience that need:

Graph the coordinates:

-2, 3, 5, -2, 8, 1, -4, 0, -10, 4, -7, -3, -2, 7, 2, -5, -3

You can’t even easily tell if there are an even number of numbers!

[My thanks to various workshop participants for helping me understand this.]


The need for combining like terms is Harel’s need for computation and the need for parentheses is Harel’s need for communication. I can’t recommend his paper enough in which he outlines five needs for all of mathematics.

My point isn’t that we should avoid real-world or job-world applications of mathematics. My point is that for some mathematics that is actually impossible. But that doesn’t mean the mathematics was invented arbitrarily or for no reason or for malicious reasons. There was a need.

Math sometimes feels purposeless to students, a bunch of rules invented by people who wanted to make children miserable thousands of years in the future. We can put students in a place to experience those purposes instead.


We explored these ideas in a summer series.

Real World, But Unnecessary


There are lots of great reasons to use this task from NCTM’s Illuminations site, which asks students to derive an algebraic function from a problem situation. But one of those reasons isn’t “to show students why they should derive algebraic functions.”

It’s a real world problem, by most definitions of the term. But let’s not let that fact satisfy us. It’s possible for math to be real-world, but also unnecessary. For example, I can ask students to use trigonometry to calculate the height of a file cabinet. But that math isn’t necessary when a measuring tape would suffice.

The same is true here. I can find Stages 1 through 5 by multiplying by three successively. So why did we invent algebraic representations? Life would be so much easier for both the student and the teacher if we relaxed that condition.

But if we added the question, “How long would it take the entire world to experience a good deed?” we will have both a) identified the need for algebraic functions – to calculate outputs given any input, even distant inputs – and b) put students in a position to experience that need.


That’s a two-step process. With the line, “Describe a function that would model the Pay It Forward process at any stage,” the author satisfies the first step. He understands the value of algebraic functions, himself. But without our added question, that’s privileged knowledge and we’re hoping students infer it. Instead, let’s put them directly in the path of that knowledge.

Real world, and also necessary.

Multiple Representations v. Best Representation

This is from a worksheet I assigned during my last year in the classroom:


There are lots of good reasons to ask students for multiple representations of relationships. But I worry that a consistent regiment of turning tables into equations into graphs and back and forth can conceal the fact that each one of these representations were invented for a purpose. Graphs serve a purpose that tables do not. And the equation serves a purpose that stymies the graph.

By asking for all three representations time after time, my students may have gained a certain conceptual fluency promised us by researchers like Brenner et al. But I’m not sure that knowledge was ever effectively conditionalized. I’m not sure those students knew when they could pick up one of those representations and leave the others on the table, except when the problem told them.

Otherwise, it’s possible they thought each problem required each of them.

The same goes for representations of one-dimensional data. We can take the same set of numbers and represent its mean, median, minimum, maximum, deviation, bar graph, column graph, histogram, pie chart, etc.

So here is the exercise. Take one representation. Now take another. Why did we invent that other representation? Now how do you put your students in a place to experience the limitations of the first representation such that the other one seems necessary, like aspirin to a headache?

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Howard Phillips:

Ok. First is bar chart, second is box plot.

All situations in statistics require some data, and the best data is that which students compile themselves. For this comparison a single set of data is best presented as a bar chart, but compare the data from five or more distinct groups of subjects, same measure, and the multiple strip bar chat is a bloody mess. Five box plots above the same numberline, and so much more is revealed, at a small cost of loss of detail.

I used to think that box plots were a waste of time until I saw the above usage.

Kim Morrow-Leong:

The same is true of physical representations. I am thinking of many algebra growth problems that involve squares and growing patterns. It is valuable to ask students to go through the actions of adding squares to watch a pattern grow through the addition of tiles. This action can help them have the physical experience of a rate of change. But this representation also has its drawbacks. It is clearly cumbersome and not efficient.

Daniel Schneider:

I think of them all as connected to making predictions about data – certain representations lend themselves to different ways in which data is presented, and certain representations help make predictions about that data.

Tables are great when you need to generate data from a scenario – you have a situation that has been given to you and you need a place to start. Creating a table for some initial data helps you see the patterns in whats happening and helps you make littler predictions about where the data is going. If I want students to appreciate tables, I give them a visual pattern or a scenario problem with a starting condition and a rate of change, then ask them some questions about what will happen.

Graphs are great when you’re given several random data points that, even when arranged as a table, don’t indicate a clear pattern. Sometimes plotting these visually helps you predict what other points could be missing, or what other points exist as the pattern continues. This is especially true for situations whose solutions depend on two variables, such as only having 30 dollars to spend on item A that costs 2 dollars and item B that costs 1 dollar. When I want students to appreciate graphs, I give them one of these situations (which usually lends itself to standard form of an equation, but they don’t know that) or I give them several data points and ask them what’s missing in the pattern. This is easier to see when organized visually and you you a particular shape to your points rather than a random collection.

Equations are the most efficient way to make predictions about patterns – if you’re given an equation, there’s no reason to have any other representation. Equations are useful for predicting far into the future for your data – maybe you can figure out the first few terms of your pattern, but trying to generate the 100th term is inefficient. Using an equation is like being omnipotent with a set of data. When I want students to appreciate equations, I give them a scenario but ask for a data point in the absurd future where the table or graph necessary to find the point would be too large and unwieldy to use.

The order I’ve presented these in this comment is also my typical order for presenting these representations to students: tables are useful at the beginning to generate data; graphs are useful once you have lots of it that may or may not be organized and may be missing some points, and equations are good for predicting the future.

A curious consequence might be: it’s not particular situations that necessitate one representation versus the other; rather, its what data you choose to give them at the beginning and what you ask them to do with it that makes one representation more valuable than another.


So very true. This skill seems to be neglected in our classrooms. Computers can take one representation and switch to others over and over again, much faster than humans can. If switching back and forth is your only skill, I can easily replace you with a $100 calculator from Target. And the calculator will be faster and more accurate.

But if I’m training students to be problem solvers who are smarter than computers, the “which representation is needed here” is a much more important question. I’m not aware of a computer that can answer that question.

Chester Draws:

Draw a simple line on a graph.

Now what is the value at x = 1.37?

Now they see that the equation is quicker and more accurate than the graph — even when inside the graphed region.

Or draw two lines that do not meet at integer values. Where do they meet, exactly? Hence that simultaneous equations are better in some situations than graphs.

But again, we can draw y = log x crossing y = x2 quicker on our graphics calculator than we can solve it.

(Of course y = x2 doesn’t cross y = log x, but they only know that if they graph it!)

BTW: Essential reading from Bridget Dunbar also: Effective v.Efficient.