Creating Balance III / Miscellany Saturday, Oct 23 2010 

The Creating Balance in an Unjust World conference is back! I went a year and a half ago and it was awesome. Math education and social justice, what more could you want?

If you’re in NYC and you’re around this weekend, it’s happening right now! I’m going to try to make it to Session 3 this afternoon. It’s at Long Island University, corner of Flatbush and DeKalb in Brooklyn, right off the DeKalb stop on the Q train. I heard from one of the organizers that you can show up and register at the conference. I’m not 100% sure how that works given that it’s already begun, but I am sure you can still go.

* * * * *

I’ve just had a very intense week.

I want to get some thoughts down. I’m going to try very hard to resist my natural inclinations to a) try to work them into an overall narrative, and b) take forever doing it. Let’s see how I do.

(Ed. note: apparently not very well.)

I. Last spring I wrote

20*20 is 400; how does taking away 2 from one of the factors and 3 from the other affect the product? We get kids thinking hard about this and it would support the most contrivance-free explanation for why (neg)(neg)=(pos) that I have ever seen.

Without going into contextual details, let me just say that if you try to use this to actually develop the multiplication rules in a 1-hour lesson, all that will happen is that you will be dragging kids through the biggest, clunkiest, hardest-to-swallow, easiest-to-lose-the-forest-for-the-trees, totally-mathematically-correct-but-come-now model for signed number multiplication that you have ever seen (and this includes the hot and cold cubes). This idea makes sense for building intuition about signed numbers slowly, before they’re an actual object of study. It does not make any sense at all for teaching a one-off lesson explicitly about them. (Yes, the hard way. I totally knew this five months ago – what was I thinking?)

II. I gave a workshop Wednesday night, for about 35 experienced teachers, entitled “Why Linear Algebra Is Awesome.” The idea was to reinterpret the Fibonacci recurrence as a linear transformation and use linear algebra to get a closed form for the Fibonacci numbers. Again, without going into details –

I gave a problem set to make participants notice that the transformation we were working with was linear. I used those PCMI-style tricks like giving two problems in a row that have the same answer for a mathematically significant reason. This worked totally well. Here is the problem set:


Oops I guess I failed to avoid going into details. Anyway, the question was about how to follow this up. I went over 1-4 with everyone (actually, I had individual participants come up to the front for #3 and 4) at which point the only thing I really needed out of this – the linearity of the transformation – had been noticed by pretty much the whole room. One participant had gotten to #9 where you prove it, and I had her go over her proof.

I think this was valueless for the group as a whole. The proof was just a straight computation. You kind of have to do it yourself to feel it at all. It was such a striking difference watching people work on the problem set and have all these lightbulbs go off, vs. listening to somebody prove the thing they’d noticed. It almost seemed like people didn’t see the connection between what they’d noticed and what just got proved. I told them to take 5 minutes and discuss this connection with their table, but I got the feeling that this instruction was actually further disorienting for some participants.

I’m trying to put the experience into language so I get the lesson from it.

It’s like, there was something uninspired and disconnected about watching somebody formally prove the result, and then afterward trying to find the connection between the proof and the observation. Now that I write this down, clearly that was backward. If I wanted the proof (which was really just a boring calculation) to mean anything, especially if I wanted it to be at all engaging to watch somebody else do the proof, we needed to be in suspense about whether the result was true; either because we legitimately weren’t sure, or because we were pretty sure but a lot was riding on it.

This is adding up to: next time I do it, feel no need to prove the linearity. Let them observe it from the problem set and articulate it, but if there is no sense of uncertainty about it, this is enough. Later in the workshop, when we use it to derive a closed form for the Fibonacci numbers, now a lot is riding on it. If it feels right, we could take that moment to make sure it’s true.

III. As I work on my teacher class, something that’s impressing itself upon me for the first time is that definitions are just as important as proofs. What I mean by this is two things:

a) It makes sense to put a real lot of thought into motivating a course’s key definitions,

and maybe even more importantly,

b) Students of math need practice in creating definitions. You know I think that creating proofs is an underdeveloped skill for most students of math; it strikes me that creating definitions might be even more underdeveloped.

Definitions are one of the most overtly creative products of mathematical work, but they also solve problems. Not in quite the same sense that theorems do – they don’t answer precisely stated questions. But they answer an important question nonetheless – what do we really mean? And to really test a definition, you have to try to prove theorems with it. If it helps you prove theorems, and if the picture that emerges when you prove them matches the image you had when you started trying to make the definition, then it is a “good” definition. (This got clear for me by reading Stephen Maurer’s totally entertaining 1980 article The King Chicken Theorems.)

Anyway this adds up to an activity to put students through that I’ve never explicitly thought about before, but now find myself building up to with my teacher class:

a) Pose a definitional problem. Do a lot of work to make the class understand that we have an important idea at hand for which we lack a good definition.

b) Make them try to create a definition.

c) If they come up with something at all workable, have them try to use it to prove something they already believe true. I’ve often talked in the past about how trying to prove something you already believe true is very difficult, and that will be a problem here. However, unlike in the cases I had in mind (e.g. a typical Geometry “proof exercise”), this situation has the necessary element of suspense: does our definition work?

If they don’t come up with something workable, maybe give them a not entirely precise definition to try out.

d) Refine the definition based on the experience trying to use it to prove something.

I’ll let you know how it goes. I’m excited about it because it mirrors the process that advances mathematics as a discipline. But I expect to have a much better sense of its usefulness once I’ve given it an honest whirl.

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.

Over the Course of an Instant… Friday, Oct 15 2010 

As you may recall, I’m teaching analysis to this class of teachers, developing the \epsilon-\delta limit. Two weeks ago I bewildered everybody. Last week and this week, I set out to bewilder everyone even further.

Let me say what I’m going for here. The \epsilon-\delta limit is a notoriously difficult definition.1 How to scaffold my class to handle this difficulty? I am banking on the following strategy: make them need the definition. Make them unsatisfied with anything less. Continue poking holes in their current understanding, continue showing them inconsistencies between what they believe and the language they have to describe it, till they have no choice but to try to build something new. Then, let them try to build it. If they build the very thing I’m going for, rejoice. If they build something equally precise and powerful, rejoice. If they cannot build either (the most likely outcome, since the “right answer” took the world mathematical community 150 years to come up with), then it will still make powerful sense to them because it satisfactorily answers a question they were already engaged in trying to answer. That’s the plan anyway.

I will leave you with the two problem sets from the last class, and the readings and presentation from this one. I am very proud of the presentation. After that, I’ll write down one new thought for where to take this.

We engaged people’s attempts to define infinite decimals from the previous class, then abruptly shifted topics:

I let them work long enough so everyone got to do the first section of problems. My goals were:

1) Make participants recognize that they believe the speed of a moving object is something that exists in a particular moment of time.
2) Make them recognize that their naive definition of speed (distance / time) doesn’t actually handle this case.
3) Realize that we thus have a similar definitional problem as with repeating decimals.

We got this far. Then, with just 7 or so minutes left, I gave them another problem set:2

This problem set was designed to get somebody who has never studied calculus basically to take a simple derivative, to bring them into the conversation, and to refresh everyone else’s memory about the basic idea of derivatives. The last problem was on there just so that the calculus folks had a challenge available if they wanted it. Anyway, I had people finish the “Algebra Calisthenics” and “Speed” sections for homework.

This class, we began by engaging this homework, getting a feel for the standard calculus computation in which you identify the speed of an object in a moment as the value toward which average speeds seem to be headed as you look at smaller and smaller intervals. Then we began to press on what this really means.

I handed out a xerox of the scholium from the end of the first section of Book 1 of Newton’s Principia. (The last page of this pdf.) This is where Newton tries to explain what the hell he’s even talking about. I directed their attention to this telling sentence:

An in like manner, by the ultimate ratio of evanescent quantities is to be understood the ratio of the quantities, not before they vanish, nor afterwards, but with which they vanish.

Then, I showed them the following presentation. Wanting to share this with you is the real reason for this blog post. I had a lot of fun making it.

(Scribd did better than last time, but it still got a tiny bit messed up so if you want the original presentation, email me!)

Then I passed out a choice excerpt from the awesome criticism of early calculus by Bishop George Berkeley. (Specif, section XIV.)

I asked for the connection between the definitional problem we have here and the definitional problem we had 2 classes ago regarding infinite decimals. (“They both involve getting closer and closer to something but never getting there.”) Then I asked them to try to come up with definitions to address these problems.

This is such a non-sequitur but here’s my one additional thought. I’ve been thinking about how to push participants to recognize a definition as unsatisfying. Tonight, reading Judith Grabiner’s 1983 essay in the AMM about Cauchy and the origins of the \epsilon-\delta limit (here it is as a pdf), I had an idea that is totally new to me. Retrospectively I think it’s sort of obvious, but I totally never thought of it before:

To get people to recognize that a definition is mathematically inadequate, have them try to use the definition, for example to prove something! In my case, all of them think that 1/3 = 0.333… Great. So, if we have a candidate definition of the meaning of limits or convergence, can we use it to prove 1/3 = 0.333…? If not, maybe we need a better definition.

(I had this idea when I read Grabiner’s statement that thought Cauchy gave the definition of the limit purely verbally and a bit vaguely, he translated it into the more rigorous language of inequalities when he actually started using it to prove theorems.)

[1] This is for at least 2 distinct (though related reasons): first of all, it’s got three nested quantifiers. “For all \epsilon>0, there exists a \delta>0, such that for all x satisfying …” That just makes it inherently confusing. Secondly, it does not in any way psychologically resemble the intuitive image it is intended to capture. This is the definition of the limit. When I think of limits I have these beautiful visual images of little points getting closer to something. When I try to identify a limit, I just imagine the thing that they’re getting closer to. That’s the whole story. When I try to get rigorous, I replace this beautiful and simple image with three nested quantifiers. Yuck.

[2] You will notice some interconnections in the sequence of problems. After a few good experiences with this last year and then hearing how much fun everyone had at PCMI, I am beginning to feel like these sequences of densely but subtly interconnected problems are really, really awesome. Constructing them is a deep art and I am a tiny apprentice. But you can get started humbly and still see payoff: it was certainly a cool moment today in class when we went over these problems and a number of folks who had done out Speed problems #1-3 “the long way” realized that they could have applied their answer to Algebra Calisthenics #2 to do these three problems in moments in their heads.

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