I’m at BEAM 7 (formerly SPMPS) right now. I just taught a week-long, 18 hour course on number theory to 11 awesome middle schoolers. I’ve done this twice before, in 2013 and 2014. (Back then it was 20 hrs, and I totally sorely missed those last two!) The main objective of the course is some version of Euclid’s proof of the infinitude of the primes. In the past, what I’ve gotten them to do is to find the proof and convince themselves of its soundness in a classroom conversation. I actually wrote a post 4 years ago in which I recounted how (part of) the climactic conversation went.

This year, about halfway through, I found myself with an additional goal: I wanted them to write down proofs of the main result and the needed lemmas, in their own words, in a way a mathematician would recognize as complete and correct.

I think this happened halfway through the week because until then I had never allowed myself to fully acknowledge how separate a skill this is from constructing a proof and defending its soundness in a classroom conversation.

At any rate, this was my first exercise in teaching students how to workshop a written proof since the days before I really understood what I was about as an educator, and I found a structure that worked on this occasion, so I wanted to share it.

Let me begin with a sample of final product. This particular proof is for the critical lemma that natural numbers have prime factors.

Theorem: All natural numbers greater than 1 have at least one prime factor.

Proof: Let N be any natural number > 1. The factors of N will continue descending as you keep factoring non-trivially. Therefore, the factoring of the natural number will stop at some point, since the number is finite.

If the reader believes that the factoring will stop, it has to stop at a prime number since the factoring cannot stop at a composite because a composite will break into more factors.

Since the factors of N factorize down to prime numbers, that prime is also a factor of N because if N has factor Y and Y has a prime factor, that prime factor is also a factor of N. (If a\mid b and b\mid c then a\mid c.)

There was a lot of back and forth between them, and between me and them, to produce this, but all the language came from them, except for three suggestions I made, quite late in the game:

1) I suggested the “Let N be…” sentence.
2) I suggested the “Therefore” in the first paragraph.
3) I suggested the “because” in the last paragraph. (Priorly, it was 2 separate sentences.)

Here’s how this was done.

First, they had to have the conversation where the proof itself was developed. This post isn’t especially about that part, so I’ll be brief. I asked them if a number could be so big none of its factors were prime. They said, no, this can’t happen. I asked them how they knew. They took a few minutes to hash it out for themselves and their argument basically amounted to, “well, even if you factor it into composite numbers, these themselves will have prime factors, so QED.” I then expressed that because of my training, I was aware of some possibilities they might not have considered, so I planned on honoring my dissatisfaction until they had convinced me they were right. I proceeded to press them on how they knew they would eventually find prime factors. It took a long time but they eventually generated the substance of the proof above. (More on how I structure this kind of conversation in a future post.)

I asked them to write it down and they essentially produced only the following two sentences:

1. The factoring of the natural number will stop at a certain point, since the number is finite.
2. If X (natural) has a factor Y, and Y has a prime factor, that prime factor is also a factor of X.

This was the end product of a class period. Between this one and the next was when it clicked for me that I wanted proof writing to be a significant goal. It was clear that they had all the parts of the argument in mind, at least collectively if not individually. But many of the ideas and all of the connective tissue were missing from their class-wide written attempt. On the one hand, given how much work they had already put in, I felt I owed it to them to help them produce a complete, written proof that would stand up to time and be legible to people outside the class. On the other, I was wary to insert myself too much into the process lest I steal any of their sense of ownership over the finished product. How to scaffold the next steps in a way that gave them a way forward, and led to something that would pass muster outside the class, but left ownership in their hands?

Here’s what I tried, which at least on this occasion totally worked. (Quite slowly, fyi.)

I began with a little inspirational speech about proof writing:

Proof writing is the power to force somebody to believe you, who doesn’t want to.

The point of this speech was to introduce a character into the story: The Reader. The important facts about The Reader are:

(1) They are ornery and skeptical. They do not want to believe you. They will take any excuse you give them to stop listening to you and dismiss what you are saying.

(2) If you are writing something down that you talked about earlier, your reader was not in the room when you talked about it.

Having introduced this character, I reread their proof to them and exposed what The Reader would be thinking. I also wrote it down on the board for them to refer to:

1. The factoring of the natural number will stop at a certain point, since the number is finite.

(a) What does finiteness of the number have to do with the conclusion that the factoring will stop? (b) Why do you believe the numbers at which the factoring stops will be prime?

2. If X (natural) has a factor Y, and Y has a prime factor, that prime factor is also a factor of X.

What does this have to do with anything?

(I don’t have a photo of the board at this stage. I did do The Reader’s voice in a different color.)

Then I let them work as a whole class. I had the students run the conversation completely and decide when they were ready to present their work to The Reader again. In one or two more iterations of this, they came up with all of the sentences in the proof quoted above except for “Let N be…” and minus the “Therefore” and “because” mentioned before. They started to work on deciding an order for the sentences. At this point it seemed clear to me they knew the proof was theirs, so I told them I (not as The Reader but as myself) had a suggestion and asked if I could make it. They said yes, and I suggested which sentence to put first. I also suggested the connecting words and gave my thinking about them. They liked all the suggestions.

This is how it was done. From the first time I gave the reader’s feedback to the complete proof was about 2 hours of hard work.

Let me highlight what for me was the key innovation:

It’s that the feedback was not in the teacher’s (my) voice, but instead in the voice of a character we were all imagining, which acted according to well-defined rules. (Don’t believe the proof unless forced to; and don’t consider any information about what the students are trying to communicate that is not found in the written proof itself.) This meant that at some point I could start to ask, “what do you think The Reader is going to say?” I was trying to avoid the sense that I was lifting the work of writing the proof from them with my feedback, and this mode of feedback seemed to support making progress with the proof while avoiding this outcome.

Postscript:

As you may have guessed, the opening phrase of the sentence “If the reader believes…” in the final proof is an artifact of the framing in terms of The Reader. Actually, at the end, the kids had an impulse to remove this phrase in order to professionalize the sentence. I encouraged them to keep it because I think it frames the logical context of the sentence so beautifully. (I also think it is adorable.)