Good Brawls and Honoring Kids’ Dissatisfaction Friday, Mar 8 2013 

I was just reading some old correspondence with a friend J who periodically writes me regarding a math question he and his son are pondering together. The exchange was pretty juicy, about how many ways can an even number be decomposed as a sum of primes. But actually, the juiciest thing we got into was this:

Is 1 a prime number?

It was kind of a fight! Since I and Wikipedia agreed on this point (it’s not prime), J acknowledged we must know something he didn’t. But regardless, he kind of wasn’t having it.

Point 1: This is awesome.

Nothing could be better mathematician training than a fight about math. Proofs are called “arguments” for a reason.

When I went to Bob and Ellen Kaplan’s math circle training in 2009, I was heading to do a practice math circle with some high schoolers and Bob asked me, “what question are you opening with?” I said, “does .9999…=1?” He smiled with knowing anticipation and said, “oooh, that one always starts a brawl.”

Well, it wasn’t quite the bloodbath Bob led me to expect, but the kids were totally divided. One kid knew the “proof” where you go

0.999...=x

Multiplying by 10,

9.999...=10x

Subtracting,

9 = 9x

so x=1

and the other kids had that same sort of feeling like, “he knows something we don’t know,” but they weren’t convinced, and with only a minimal amount coaxing, they weren’t shy about it. The resulting conversation was the stuff of real growth: everybody in the room was contending with, and thereby pushing, the limits of their understanding. Even the boy who “knew the right answer” began to realize he didn’t have the whole story, as he found himself struggling to be articulate in the face of his classmates’ doubt.

Now this could have gone a completely different way. It’s common for “0.999… = 1″ to be treated as a fact and the above as a proof. Similarly, since the Wikipedia entry on prime numbers says, “… a natural number greater than 1 that has no positive divisors…,” we could just leave it at that.

But in both situations, this would be to dishonor everyone’s dissatisfaction. It is so vital that we honor it. Everybody, school-aged through grown-up, is constantly walking away from math thinking “I don’t get it.” This is a useless perspective. Never let them say they don’t get it. What they should be thinking is that they don’t buy it.

And they shouldn’t! If it wasn’t already clear that I think the above “proof” that 0.999…=1 is bullsh*t, let me make it clear. I think that argument, presented as proof, is dishonest.

I mean, if you understand real analysis, I have no beef with it. But at the level where this conversation is usually happening, this is not a proof, are you kidding me?? THE LEFT SIDE IS AN INFINITE SERIES. That means to make this argument sound, you have to deal with everything that is involved with understanding infinite series! But you just kinda slipped that in the back door, and nobody said anything because they are not used to honoring their dissatisfaction. As I have pointed out in the past, if you ignore all the series convergence issues, the exact same argument proves that …999.0=-1:

...999.0=x

Dividing by 10,

...999.9=0.1x

Subtracting,

-.9 = .9x

so x=-1

If you smell a rat, good! My point is that that same rat is smelling up the other proof too. We need to have some respect for kids’ minds when they look funny at you when you tell them 0.999…=1. They should be looking at you funny!

Same thing with why 1 is not a prime. If a student feels like 1 should be prime, that deserves some frickin respect! Because they are behaving like a mathematician! Definitions don’t get dropped down from the sky; they take their form by mathematicians arguing about them. And they get tweaked as our understanding evolves. People were still arguing about whether 1 was prime as late as the 19th century. Today, no number theorist thinks 1 is prime; however, in the 20th century we discovered a connection between primes and valuations, which has led to the idea in algebraic number theory that in addition to the ordinary primes there is an “infinite” prime, corresponding to the ordinary absolute value just as each ordinary prime corresponds to a p-adic absolute value. Now for goodness sakes, I hope you don’t buy this! With study, I have gained some sense of the utility of the idea, but I’m not entirely sold myself.

To summarize, point 2: Change “I don’t get it” to “I don’t buy it”.

Now I think this change is a good idea for everyone learning mathematics, at any level but especially in school, and I think we should teach kids to change their thinking in this way regardless of what they’re working on. But there is something special to me about these two questions (is 0.999…=1? Is 1 prime?) that bring this idea to the foreground. They’re like custom-made to start a fight. If you raise these questions with students and you are intellectually honest with them and encourage them to be honest with you, you are guaranteed to find that many of them will not buy the “right answers.” What is special about these questions?

I think it’s that the “right answers” are determined by considerations that are coming from parts of math way beyond the level where the conversation is happening. As noted above, the “full story” on 0.999…=1, in fact, the full story on the left side even having meaning, involves real analysis. We tend to slip infinite decimals sideways into the grade-school/middle-school curriculum without comment, kind of like, “oh, you know, kids, 0.3333…. is just like 0.3 or 0.33 but with more 3’s!” Students are uncomfortable with this, but we just squoosh their discomfort by ignoring it and acting perfectly comfortable ourselves, and eventually they get used to the idea and forget that they were ever uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, the full story on whether 1 is prime involves the full story on what a prime is. As above, that’s a story that even at the level of PhD study I don’t feel I fully have yet. The more I learn the more convinced I am that it would be wrong to say 1 is prime; but the learning is the point. If you tell them “a prime is a number whose only divisors are 1 and itself,” well, then, 1 is prime! Changing the definition to “exactly 2 factors” can feel like a contrivance to kick out 1 unfairly. It’s not until you get into heavier stuff (e.g. if 1 is prime, then prime factorizations aren’t unique) that it begins to feel wrong to lump 1 in with the others.

I highlight this because it means that trying to wrap up these questions with pat answers, like the phony proof above that 0.999…=1, is dishonest. Serious questions are being swept under the rug. The flip side is that really honoring students’ dissatisfaction is a way into this heavier stuff! It’s a win-win. I would love to have a big catalogue of questions like these: 3- to 6-word questions you could pose at the K-8 level but you still feel like you’re learning something about in grad school. Got any more for me?

All this puts me in mind of a beautiful 15-minute digression I witnessed about 2 years ago in the middle of Jesse Johnson’s class regarding the question is zero even or odd? It wasn’t on the lesson plan, but when it came up, Jesse gave it the full floor, and let me tell you it was gorgeous. A lot of kids wanted the answer to be that 0 is neither even nor odd; but a handful of kids, led by a particularly intrepid, diminutive boy, grew convinced that it is even. Watching him struggle to form his thoughts into an articulate point for others, and watching them contend with those thoughts, was like watching brains grow bigger visibly in real time.

Honor your dissatisfaction. Honor their dissatisfaction. Math was made for an honest fight.

p.s. Obliquely relevant: Teach the Controversy (Dan Meyer)

Honor your Dissatisfaction Friday, Oct 15 2010 

Two things I forgot to say last night.

I. The reason I’m excited about the idea of having my class use its own self-made definitions to try to prove things is not just, or even primarily, because it will help them realize the inadequacies in their definitions. Although it will do that for sure. Even more than that, it seems to me the perfect way to support them in coming up with better definitions. This is what happened to Cauchy: he defined the limit verbally and a little vaguely, but then when he actually tried to use his definition to prove things, he started writing down precise inequalities. He didn’t have a teacher around to point out that this meant he should probably revise his definition, but my class does.

II. Yesterday when I asked my class to try to make a precise definition for what it means to converge, or for something to have a limit, some of them who took real analysis long ago began accessing this knowledge in an incomplete way. They started to talk about \epsilon and \delta, but in vague, uncertain terms. It looked as though others might possibly accept the half-remembered vagueries because they seemed like they might be the “this is supposed to be the answer” answer. I had to prevent this. (The danger would have been even greater if these participants had correctly and confidently remembered the definition.) I stepped in to the conversation to say, yes, that thing you’re half-remembering is my objective, but what’s going to make you understand it so you never forget it again is to fight till you’re satisfied we’ve captured the meaning of convergence. You can either fight with the definition you half-remember or you can fight to build a new definition, but you have to go through your dissatisfaction to get there. You have to air all this dissatisfaction.

Afterward, I thought of a better language. I’ll give this to them next time.

Honor your dissatisfaction.

Dissatisfaction is the engine that created analysis. This content, more than any other content, is both confusing and pointless if you bury your dissatisfaction rather than allowing it to thrive and be answered. The primary virtue of the tools of analysis is that they are satisfying. Only if you bring forth your dissatisfaction will this content have a chance to show you its value. So. Honor your dissatisfaction. It is the engine that will move us forward.

0.99999… Tuesday, Oct 5 2010 

So I’m teaching this course this year. It’s for the math faculty of a high school. It’s called:

MA600 Algebra and Analysis with Connections to the K-12 Curriculum

I am unspeakably excited, and want to do the best job possible.

The class: 7 teachers, deeply committed to kids, serious, not real talkative, rightly protective about their time, which is in short supply, but eager to get sh*t done.

The content: Basically, all of mathematics, seen as a unified whole.

It’s met twice. The second class was last Thursday. I need to get my thoughts sorted out here. I’m expecting this to help me visualize the next moves more clearly, just by doing it, but I’d love your thoughts too.

I didn’t really know anything about the mathematical background of the group when I wrote the syllabus, so for the first class I gave them a getting-to-know-you problem set with a wide range of problems and just let them work the whole time. Magically the experience of watching folks work on the problems and then later looking at what they did on paper gave me just enough information to plan the direction of the class’ first unit. We’re beginning with analysis. My first goal: the \epsilon-\delta definition of the limit. (I.e., the definition of the limit, for the snobby among you.) My second: the completeness axiom.

The plan: generate the need to define the limit by working with 2 everyday concepts that are actually limits. Namely, infinite decimals, and instantaneous speed. My hope is that by pressing on these concepts, we’ll see that in spite of our familiarity with them, we don’t actually understand them unless we have a precise way to talk about limits. Then, develop the definition out of the need to fully understand the familiar. Then, develop the completeness axiom out of the desire to make sure infinite decimals have a limit.

Here’s what we did:

I opened class with a problem set designed to get them thinking about the meaning of decimals in particular, and various other contexts for the idea of limits. I shamelessly bit the format from PCMI. The problems span a wide range of skills and I didn’t leave enough time to do them all, so people could attack problems appropriate to their skill level. This is now my favorite way to differentiate problem sets, a propos of a) using it in some NYMC workshops last year, and b) hearing about how wonderful it was for everyone at PCMI.

Then, since we are all just getting to know each other, I did a short presentation on the mindset I wanted us to be in:

(Scribd did not handle slide 6 very well, which is too bad because I was proud of that slide. This is my first PowerPoint presentation ever. Actually I did it in Keynote.)

Then, we got to business. I put this up:

I asked them to talk about it with their tables. (I had them in 2 pairs and a group of three, in three tables in a horseshoe shape in front of the board. I like this and think I’ll keep it. Easy transitions from pair/group to whole-class; tables feel separate enough so you don’t feel like your conversation with your partner is in front of everybody; but everyone’s close enough so we can all talk. On day 1 I put us all around one table, for a sense of collegiality and common purpose, but it was too close; you couldn’t discreetly check in with your neighbor, for example.)

There was a widespread sense of mathematical discomfort, and rightly so. Infinite decimals enter most people’s math educations with no attention to the fact that they actually violate everything you’ve learned about math up to that point. You don’t get the full story until analysis, but unless you really get intimate with and own that content, you probably don’t connect what you learn there to what your teacher introduced without comment somewhere between 3rd and 7th grade, as though it weren’t a mind-boggling idea. “When you expand 1/3 as a decimal, the 3’s just keep going.” Or, “3.14159… It never ends or repeats.” Um, excuse me? It NEVER ENDS?

So it’s no surprise everybody has an underdeveloped idea of infinite decimals, and therefore that objects like 0.99999… cause some dissonance. This is very productive dissonance. I’m hoping it carries us all the way to the completeness axiom; we’ll see.

One of the three tables produced the standard argument that if x = 0.9999…, then 10x = 9.9999…, so 9x = 10x – x = 9, so x = 1; but even this table found this conclusion unsatisfying. I asked them why. The table that had produced the argument said, “usually this method gives you a fraction.” I asked for an example. They produced one from the problem set:

x = 1.363636…
100x = 136.363636…
99x = 100x – x = 135
x = 135/99 = 15/11

I asked how many folks found this argument convincing. 7 out of 7. (Well, one raised hand was kind of hesitant.)

I asked the same question about the same argument with .9999…. 4 out of 7. Then I dropped this:

How many people found this one convincing? 0 out of 7.

Reasonable.

Right?

Then what’s the difference?

At first, they cast about a bit, but then one of them said, “1.363636… has a finite limit, but …9999.0 doesn’t.” Their ideas began to coalesce around this type of language. Another one said, “we can actually estimate 1.363636…, for example we know it’s between 1 and 2.”

From the point of view I am ultimately heading for, this is the rub. Infinite decimals suggest convergent series, and the standard way to give them meaning as real numbers is that they are equal to the limit of the convergent series they suggest. …9999.0 suggests a wildly divergent series, so it cannot become a real number in the same way. (To bring home that convergence is the heart of the matter: there is an alternative way to define distance between numbers, the 10-adic metric, according to which it is actually …9999.0 that has the convergent series, and in this alternative system the above proof is valid and it actually does equal -1.) What I’d like us to do is a) define limits precisely; b) use this to prove that when a series has a limit, you can do the above type of manipulations to find it; c) try to prove that the series suggested by an infinite decimal always has a limit; d) realize that we can’t prove this without articulating the completeness axiom; e) articulate the axiom; and f) prove from the axiom that any infinite decimal has a real number limit. (Somewhere along the line, produce an \epsilon-\delta proof that 0.9999… = 1.) Now, how to orchestrate this…

For next time I told them to try to craft a definition of the meaning of an infinite decimal 0.abcd… I gave them a few minutes just before the end to discuss this with their groups. I’m expecting to learn a lot about their thinking from what they come up with, but I’m not counting on anyone to have a mathematically satisfying answer. I’ll be pleased if somebody does though.

As I think about next class, here’s what’s on my mind:

1) When we develop the \epsilon-\delta limit, what I’m going for is for this definition to feel like a satisfying relief. I know how easy it is for this definition instead to feel like a horrible monstrosity designed to oppress analysis students. I think what I have to do is keep them thinking about the reasons why anything less than this definition is too vague, which means I need to keep coming up with objects and problems that throw monkey wrenches into whatever more naive definitions they go for. (Of course, if they come up with something equally precise as the \epsilon-\delta limit but different, that would be amazing.) I feel like we’re off to a good start on this, but I want a fuller catalogue of head-scratchers (like …9999.0 = -1) to push the level of precision higher.

2) Relatedly, I sense a danger that the “real answers” will be unsatisfying because it’ll feel like “wait, I already said that.” For example, the participant who said that the difference between 1.3636… = 15/11 and …9999.0 = -1 is that “the first one has a finite limit”… I mean this is basically the answer. But it’s not based on a precise definition of limit yet, so it’s not what I want yet. I’m afraid of a “what was the big deal?” moment when we’ve got the real sh*t up there. I think the way to avoid this lies in that catalogue of head-scratchers I need to develop, so that nothing less than the real thing is satisfying. What do you think?

3) Where to go immediately next. Basically the question is: stick with decimals? Or change gears completely and press on the notion of instantaneous speed? Most (not all, I think) of the teachers have had a calculus course, but think at most 1 or 2 of them have internalized the philosophical lesson that instantaneous speed needs to be defined as a limit in order for us to even access it. I’m attracted to the idea of switching gears because I’m drawn to the connection between the disparate realms: two highly familiar, but totally different, objects – infinite decimals and speed in a moment – both getting pressed on to the point where you realize you never fully understood either one, and then you realize that the missing idea you need is the same thing in the two cases. (A precise way to talk about what number some varying quantity is “heading toward.”)

Actually as I write this out, it seems clear to me that switching gears is the way to go. I think it’ll give us a clearer understanding of what we’re missing with the decimals. Also, it’ll allow us to access all this rich historical stuff around the development of calculus. For example, maybe I’ll share with them some choice quotes from Bishop Berkeley’s The Analyst, to help articulate why the 18th century definition of the derivative was inadequate.

Anyway. Very excited about all this. Will definitely keep you posted.

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