Some work I’m proud of / don’t sleep on the Divergents Friday, Aug 14 2015 

I saw Divergent last year. I love talking about movies but I’m suppressing that impulse because it’s beside the point. The point is the central metaphor – “divergents” – people who don’t fit in one of the nice boxes. Don’t sleep on those folks. While you are dismissing somebody because they don’t fit your image of “good student” or “smart person” or whatever, they are busy taking over the universe.

I tutored a girl T a while back. A 3rd grader and a middle sibling of three. In the narrative her family passed on to me, she’s getting by in math class but math is harder for her than her siblings; she’s not as “quick.” All I have to say is that “quick” is not what it’s all about.

Here is a story from our work together, illustrating both
a) What my some of my best work looks like – how to get somebody to an ambitious result without any cognitive theft, how to utilize legitimate uncertainty to cultivate curiosity – and also
b) Some awesome mathematical thinking that doesn’t look like the stereotype. Not “quick” but something much deeper and richer. My dude T might not fit somebody’s image of the math whiz, but I am telling you, do not sleep on this kid.

At a previous session, I had asked T what she knew about multiplication, and she had told me, among other things, that 4\times 6 is four sixes, and because that’s 24, she also knew that six fours would be 24. I asked why she said so and she didn’t know why. I asked her if she thought this would always be true for bigger numbers, or could it be possible that there were some big numbers like 30,001 and 5,775 for which 30,001 5775’s was different than 5,775 30,001’s. She wasn’t sure. I asked her if she thought it was a good question and she said she thought it was.

So this session I reminded her of this conversation. I forget the details of how we got going on it; I remember inviting her to wonder about the question and note that there is something surprising about the equality between four sixes and six fours. She could count up to 24 by 4’s and by 6’s and mostly you hit different numbers on the way up, so why do the answers match? And would it be true for any pair of numbers? But the place where I really remember the conversation is when we started to get into the nuts and bolts:

Me: Maybe to help study it we should try to visualize it. Can you draw a picture of four sixes?

T draws this –

Tessa 4 6's cropped

Me: Cool! Okay I have a very interesting question for you. You know how many dots are here –

T: 24 –

Me: and you also told me that six 4’s is also 24, right?

T: yes.

Me: – so that means that there must be six 4’s in this picture! Can you find them?

T: I don’t understand.

Me [writing it down as well as saying it this time]: You drew a picture of four 6’s here, yes?

T: Yes.

Me: And that’s 24 dots, yes?

T: Yes.

Me: And you told me before that 24 is also six 4’s, yes?

T: Yes.

Me: So it must be that right here in this picture there are six 4’s!

[It clicks.] T: Yes!

Me: See if you can find them!

At this point, I go wash my hands. An essential tool that has developed in my tutoring practice is to give the student the social space to feel not-watched while they work on something requiring a little creativity or mental looseness, or just anything where the student needs to relax and sink into the problem or question. The feeling of being watched, even by a benevolent helper adult, is inhibitive for generating thoughts. Trips to wash hands or to the bathroom are a great excuse, and I can come back and watch for a minute before I make a decision about whether to alert the student to my return. I also often just look out the window and pretend to be lost in thought. Anyway, on this particular occasion, when I come back, T has drawn this:

Tess 4 6's recircled cropped

T: I found them, but it’s not… It doesn’t…

I am interrupting because I have to make sure you notice how rad she’s being. The child has a sense of mathematical aesthetics! The partition into six 4’s is uglifying a pretty picture; breaking up the symmetry it had before. It’s a kind of a truth, but she isn’t satisfied with it. She senses that there is a more elegant and more revealing truth out there.

This sense of taste is the device that allows the lesson to move forward without me doing the work for her. Her displeasure with this picture is like a wall we can pivot off of to get somewhere awesome. Watch:

Me: I totally know what you mean. It’s there but it doesn’t feel quite natural. The picture doesn’t really want to show the six 4’s.

T: Yeah.

Me: You know what though. You had a lot of choice in how you drew the four 6’s at the beginning. You chose to do it this way, with the two rows of three plus two rows of three and like that. Maybe you could make some other choice of how to draw four 6’s that would also show the six 4’s more clearly? What do you think? You wanna try to find something like that?

T: Yes! [She is totally in.]

At this point I go to the bathroom. I hang out in the hall for a bit when I get back because she seems to still be drawing. Finally,

Me: Did you find out anything?

T: I drew it a lot of different ways, but none of them show me the six 4’s…

She’s got six or seven pictures. One of them is this –

4x6 cropped

Me: Hey wait I think I can see it in this one! (T: Really??) But I can’t tell because I think you might be missing one but I’m not sure because I can’t see if they are all the same.

T immediately starts redrawing the picture, putting one x in each column, carefully lined up horizontally, and then a second x in each column. As she starts to put a third x in the first column, like this,

neat one cropped

she gasps. Then she slides her eyes sideways to me, and with a mischievous smile, adds this to her previous picture:

final cropped

The pieces just fell into place from there. Again I don’t remember the details, but I do remember I asked her what would happen with much bigger numbers – might 30,001 5,775’s and 5,775 30,001’s come out different? And she was able to say no, and why not. Commutativity of multiplication QED, snitches!

What’s the point here? Well, there are two. One is that I’m proud of this, and I’m excited to show you what I did that was awesome. So to that end I’ll highlight my (awesome ;) ) operating principles:

A) It was important that T did not know what the outcome would be, but wanted to know. She indicated at the beginning that she was familiar with multiplication’s commutativity (not in that language), but to cultivate uncertainty, I asked her if it would always be true (and she was legitimately unsure). To cultivate curiosity, I asked her if she thought it was a good question (and she did). This is the setup I was arguing for last time. If she hadn’t been unsure, or hadn’t been interested, I would have turned to a different question.

B) I was aiming to create a situation for T that directed her attention to profitable seams in the substrate of our inquiry without taking away any of her ownership over any of the important steps that led to the conclusion. Therefore, I was committed to not at any point drawing an array of dots. That picture had to be hers. And I was committed to not explaining how the array picture leads to the conclusion that a b’s is b a’s. That train of thought had to be hers. Finally, if she had come up with a different picture that revealed the six 4’s in a generalizeable way, that would have been just as good. My specific moves and choices were governed by the twin questions “what is really mathematically at stake here?” and “how can I utilize her curiosity to get her attention closer to it without visibly pointing it out?”

But the other point is that I want to show you what T did that was awesome. T is one of many, many students who get dismissed mathematically because they don’t produce fast and they don’t get right answers all the time. But she is not to be dismissed. Notice that no amount of speed or right answers would have served the function that T’s curiosity, interest in the question, and sense of mathematical aesthetics served. No amount of awesomeness from my end would have gotten her anywhere either. T is an eight year old who has proved a theorem about every one of the infinity of pairs of natural numbers. She didn’t do it with speed or accuracy, she did it with depth of engagement and her developing sense of whether ideas are fitting together snugly or awkwardly.

Don’t sleep on the Divergents.

Uhm sayin Saturday, Aug 1 2015 

Dan Meyer’s most recent post is about how in order to motivate proof you need doubt.

This is something I was repeatedly and inchoately hollering about five years ago.

As usual I’m grateful for Dan’s cultivated ability to land the point cleanly and actionably. Looking at my writing from 5 years ago – it’s some of my best stuff! totally follow those links! – but it’s long and heady, and not easy to extract the action plan. So, thanks Dan, for giving this point (which I really care about) wings.

I have one thing to add to Dan’s post! Nothing I haven’t said before but let’s see if I can make it pithy so it can fly too.

Dan writes that an approach to proof that cultivates doubt has several advantages:

  1. It motivates proof
  2. It lowers the threshold for participation in the proof act
  3. It allows students to familiarize themselves with the vocabulary of proof and the act of proving
  4. It makes proving easier

I think it makes proving not only easier but way, way easier, and I have something to say about how.

Legitimate uncertainty and the internal compass for rigor

Anybody who has ever tried to teach proof knows that the work of novice provers on problems of the form “prove X” is often spectacularly, shockingly illogical. The intermediate steps don’t follow from the givens, don’t imply the desired conclusion, and don’t relate to each other.

I believe this happens for an extremely simple reason. And it’s not that the kids are dumb.

It happens because the students’ work is unrelated to their own sense of the truth! You told them to prove X given Y. To them, X and Y look about equally true. Especially since the problem setup literally informed them that both are true. Everything else in sight looks about equally true too.

There is no gradient of confidence anywhere. Thus they have no purchase on the geography of the truth. They are in a flat, featureless wilderness where all the directions look the same, and they have no compass. So they wander in haphazard zigzags! What the eff else can they do??

The situation is utterly different if there is any legitimate uncertainty in the room. Legitimate uncertainty is an amazing, magical, powerful force in a math classroom. When you don’t know and really want to know, directions of inquiry automatically get magnetized for you along gradients of confidence. You naturally take stock of what you know and use it to probe what you don’t know.

I call this the internal compass for rigor.

Everybody’s got one. The thing that distinguishes experienced provers is that we have spent a lot of time sensitizing ours and using it to guide us around the landscape of the truth, to the point where we can even feel it giving us a validity readout on logical arguments relating to things we already believe more or less completely. (This is why “prove X” is a productive type of exercise for a strong college math major or a graduate student, and why mathematicians agree that the twin prime conjecture hasn’t been proven yet even though everybody believes it.)

But novice provers don’t know how to feel that subtle tug yet. If you say “prove X” you are settling the truth question for them, and thereby severing their access to their internal compass for rigor.

Fortunately, the internal compass is capable of a much more powerful pull, and that’s when it’s actually giving you a readout on what to believe. Everybody can and does feel this pull. As soon as there’s something you don’t know and want to know, you feel it.

This means that often it’s enough merely to generate some legitimate mathematical uncertainty in the students, and some curiosity about it, and then just watch and wait. With maybe a couple judicious and well-thought-out hints at the ready if needed. But if the students resolve this legitimate uncertainty for themselves, well, then, they have probably more or less proven something. All you have to do is interview them about why they believe what they’ve concluded and you will hear something that sounds very much like a proof.

A Critical Language for Problem Design Saturday, Jan 18 2014 

I am at the Joint Mathematics Meetings this week. I had a conversation yesterday, with Cody L. Patterson, Yvonne Lai, and Aaron Hill, that was very exciting to me. Cody was proposing the development of what he called a “critical language of task design.”

This is an awesome idea.

But first, what does he mean?

He means giving (frankly, catchy) names to important attributes, types, and design principles, of mathematical tasks. I can best elucidate by example. Here are two words that Cody has coined in this connection, along with his definitions and illustrative examples.

Jamming – transitive verb. Posing a mathematical task in which the underlying concepts are essential, but the procedure cannot be used (e.g., due to insufficient information).

Example: you are teaching calculus. Your students have gotten good at differentiating polynomials using the power rule, but you have a sinking suspicion they have forgotten what the derivative is even really about. You give them a table like this

x f(x)
4 16
4.01 16.240901
4.1 18.491

and then ask for a reasonable estimate of f'(4). You are jamming the power rule because you’re giving them a problem that aims at the concept underlying the derivative and that cannot be solved with the power rule.

Thwarting – transitive verb. Posing a mathematical task in which mindless execution of the procedure is possible but likely to lead to a wrong answer.

Example: you are teaching area of simple plane figures. Your students have gotten good at area of parallelogram = base * height but you feel like they’re just going through the motions. You give them this parallelogram:
Of course they all try to find the area by 9\times 41. You are thwarting the thoughtless use of base * height because it gets the wrong answer in this case.

Why am I so into this? These are just two words, naming things that all teachers have probably done in some form or another without their ever having been named. They describe only a very tiny fraction of good tasks. What’s the big deal?

It’s that these words are a tiny beginning. We’re talking about a whole language of task design. I’m imagining having a conversation with a fellow educator, and having access to hundreds of different pedagogically powerful ideas like these, neatly packaged in catchy usable words. “I see you’re thwarting the quadratic formula pretty hard here, so I’m wondering if you want to balance it out with some splitting / smooshing / etc.” (I have no idea what those would mean but you get the idea.)

I have no doubt that a thoughtful, extensive and shared vocabulary of this kind would elevate our profession. It would be a concrete vehicle for the transmission and development of our shared expertise in designing mathematical experiences.

This notion has some antecedents.[1] First, there are the passes at articulating what makes a problem pedagogically valuable. On the math blogosphere, see discussions by Avery Pickford, Breedeen Murray, and Michael Pershan. (Edit 1/21: I knew Dan had one of these too.) I also would like to believe that there is a well-developed discussion on this topic in academic print journals, although I am unaware of it. (A google search turned up this methodologically odd but interesting-seeming article about biomed students. Is it the tip of the iceberg? Is anyone reading this acquainted with the relevant literature?)

Also, I know a few other actual words that fit into the category “specialized vocabulary to discuss math tasks and problems.” I forget where I first ran into the word problematic in this context – possibly in the work of Cathy Twomey-Fosnot and Math in the City – but that’s a great word. It means that the problem feels authentic and vital; the opposite of contrived. I also forget where I first heard the word grabby (synonymous with Pershan’s hooky, and not far from how Dan uses perplexing) to describe a math problem – maybe from the lips of Justin Lanier? But, once you know it it’s pretty indispensible. Jo Boaler, by way of Dan Meyer, has given us the equally indispensable pseudocontext. So, the ball is already rolling.

When Cody shared his ideas, Yvonne and I speculated that the folks responsible for the PCMI problem setsBowen Kerins and Darryl Yong, and their friends at the EDC – have some sort of internal shared vocabulary of problem design, since they are masters. They were giving a talk today, so I went, and asked this question. It wasn’t really the setting to get into it, but superficially it sounded like yes. For starters, the PCMI’s problem sets (if you are not familiar with them, click through the link above – you will not be sorry) all contain problems labeled important, neat and tough. “Important” means accessible, and also at the center of connections to many other problems. Darryl talked about the importance of making sure the “important” problems have a “low threshold, high ceiling” (a phrase I know I’ve heard before – anyone know where that comes from?). He said that Bowen talks about “arcs,” roughly meaning, mathematical themes that run through the problem sets, but I wanted to hear much more about that. Bowen, are you reading this? What else can you tell us?

Most of these words share with Cody’s coinages the quality of being catchy / natural-language-feeling. They are not jargony. In other words, they are inclusive rather than exclusive.[2] It is possible for me to imagine that they could become a shared vocabulary of our whole profession.

So now what I really want to ultimately happen is for a whole bunch of people (Cody, Yvonne, Bowen, you, me…) to put in some serious work and to write a book called A Critical Language for Mathematical Problem Design, that catalogues, organizes and elucidates a large and supple vocabulary to describe the design of mathematical problems and tasks. To get this out of the completely-idle-fantasy stage, can we do a little brainstorming in the comments? Let’s get a proof of concept going. What other concepts for thinking about task design can you describe and (jargonlessly) name?

I’m casting the net wide here. Cody’s “jamming” and “thwarting” are verbs describing ways that problems can interrupt the rote application of methods. “Problematic” and “grabby” are ways of describing desirable features of problems, while “pseudocontext” is a way to describe negative features. Bowen and Darryl’s “important/neat/tough” are ways to conceptualize a problem’s role in a whole problem set / course of instruction. I’m looking for any word that you could use, in any way, when discussing the design of math tasks. Got anything for me?

[1]In fairness, for all I know, somebody has written a book entitled A Critical Language for Mathematical Task Design. I doubt it, but just in case, feel free to get me a copy for my birthday.

[2]I am taking a perhaps-undeserved dig here at a number of in-many-ways-wonderful curriculum and instructional design initiatives that have a lot of rich and deep thought about pedagogy behind them but have really jargony names, such as Understanding by Design and Cognitively Guided Instruction. (To prove that an instructional design paradigm does not have to be jargony, consider Three-Acts.) I feel a bit ungenerous with this criticism, but I can’t completely shake the feeling that jargony names are a kind of exclusion: if you really wanted everybody to use your ideas, you would have given them a name you could imagine everybody saying.

Kids Summarizing Sunday, Sep 8 2013 

Back in the spring, I resolved to make a practice of having students summarize each others’ thoughts whenever I have classroom opportunities. This summer, I got the opportunity to give this technique a sustained go, when I taught at SPMPS (which was completely awesome btw). And:

It is an effing game-changer.

This summer, when I or a student put forth an idea, I regularly followed it with, “who can summarize what so-and-so said?” Or (even better), “so-and-so, can you summarize what so-and-so just said?” Following the models of Lucy West and Deborah Ball, I carefully distinguished summary from evaluation. “Not whether you buy it, just the idea itself.” When dipsticking the room on an idea, I would also make this distinction. “Raise your hand if you feel that you understand what was just said; not that you buy it, just that you understand what they’re trying to say.” Then, “leave your hand up if you also buy it.”

These moves completely transformed the way whole-class conversation felt to me:

* Students were perceptibly more engaged with each others’ ideas.
* The ideas felt more like community products.
* Students who were shy to venture an idea in the first place nonetheless played key roles as translators of others’ ideas.

Furthermore, for the first time I felt I had a reliable way past the impasse that happens when somebody is saying something rich and other people are not fully engaged. More generally, past the impasse that happens when somebody says something awesome and there are others for whom it doesn’t quite land. (Whether they were engaged or not.)

A snippet of remembered classroom dialogue to illustrate:

Me: The question before us is, do the primes end, or do they go on forever? At this point, does anybody think they know?

(Aside: This was after a day of work on the subject. Most kids didn’t see the whole picture at this point, but one did:)

[J raises his hand.]

J: They don’t end. If they ended, you’d have a list. You could multiply everything on the list and add 1 and you would get a big number N. Either N is prime or it’s composite. If it is prime, you can add it to the list. If it is composite, it has at least one prime factor. Its factor can’t be on the list because all the numbers on the list when divided [into] N have a remainder of 1. So you can add its factor to the list. You can keep doing this forever so they don’t end.

Me: Raise your hand to summarize J’s thought.

(Aside: although J has just basically given a complete version of Euclid’s proof of the infinitude of the primes, and although I am ecstatic about this, I can’t admit any of this because the burden of thought needs to stay with the kids. J is just about done with the question, but this is just the right thing, said once: the class as a whole is nowhere near done. This is one of the situations in which asking for summaries is so perfect.)

[Several kids raise their hands. I call on T.]

T: J is saying that the primes don’t end. He says this because if you have a list of all the primes, you can multiply them and add one, giving you a big number N. If N is prime, you can add it to the list. If N is not prime, and its prime factors are not on the list, you can add them.

Me: J, is that what you were trying to say?

J: Yes.

(Notice that a key point in J’s argument, that the factors of N cannot already be on the list, was not dealt with by T, and J did not catch this when asked if T had summarized his point. This is totally typical. Most kids in the room have not seen why this point is important. Some kids have probably not seen why J’s argument even relates to the question of whether the primes end. All this has to be given more engaged airtime.)

Me: raise your hand if you feel that you understand the idea that J put forth that T is summarizing.

[About 2/3 of the room raises hands. I raise mine too.]

Me: Leave your hand up if you also find the idea convincing and you now believe the primes don’t end.

[A few kids put their hands down. I put mine down too.]

N [to me]: Why did you put your hand down?

Me [to class]: Who else wants to know?

[At least half the class raises hands.]

Me [to T]: Here’s what’s bugging me. You said that if N is not prime and its prime factors are not on the list, I can add them. But what if N is not prime and its prime factors are already on the list?

T [thinks for a minute]: I don’t know, I’ll have to think more about that.

[J’s hand shoots up]

Me [to T]: Do you want to see what J has to say about that or do you want to think more about it first?

[T calls on J to speak]

J: Can’t happen. All the numbers on the list were multiplied together and added 1 to get N. So when N is divided by 2, 3, 5, and so on, it has a remainder of 1. So N’s factor can’t be 2, 3, 5, and so on.

T: Oh, yeah, he’s right.

Me: Can you summarize his whole thought?

[T explains the whole thing start to finish.]

Me: Do you buy it?

T: Yes.

Me: Who else wants to summarize the idea that J put forth and T summarized?

Unexpectedly, this technique speaks to a question I was mulling over a year and a half ago, about how to encourage question-asking. How can the design of the classroom experience structurally (as opposed to culturally) encourage people to ask questions and seek clarification when they need it? The answer I half-proposed back then was to choose certain moments in the lesson and make student questions the desired product in those moments. (“Okay everyone, pair up and generate a question about the definition we just put up” or whatever.) At the time I didn’t feel like this really addressed the need I was articulating because it had to be planned. Kate rightly pressed me on this because actually it’s awesome to do that. But I was hungering for something more ongoingly part of the texture of class, not something to build into a lesson at specific points. And as it turns out, student summaries are just what I was looking for! The questions and requests for clarification are forced out by putting students on the spot to summarize.

A last thought. Learning this new trick has been for me a testament to teaching’s infinitude as a craft. Facilitating rich and thought-provoking classroom discussions was already something I’d given a lot of thought and conscious work to; perhaps more than to any other part of teaching, at least in recent years. I.e. this is an area where I already saw myself as pretty accomplished (and, hopefully with due modesty, I still stand by that). And yet I could still learn something so basic as “so-and-so, can you summarize what so-and-so said?” and have it make a huge difference. What an amazing enterprise to always be able to grow so much.

Deborah Ball and Lucy West are F*cking Masters Sunday, Mar 31 2013 

I recently saw some video from Deborah Ball’s Elementary Mathematics Laboratory. I actually didn’t know what she looked like so I didn’t find out till afterward that the teacher in the video was, y’know, THE Deborah Ball, but already from watching, I was thinking,


It put me in mind of a professional development workshop I attended 2 years ago which was run by Lucy West. Both Ball and West displayed a level of adeptness at getting students to engage with one another’s reasoning that blew me away.

One trick both of them used was to consistently ask students to summarize one another’s train of thought. This set up a classroom norm that you are expected to follow and be able to recapitulate the last thoughts that were said, no matter who they are coming from. Both Ball and West explicitly articulated this norm as well as implicitly backing it up by asking students (or in West’s case, teachers in a professional development setting) to do it all the time. In both cases, the effect was immediate and powerful: everybody was paying attention to everybody else.

The benefit wasn’t just from a management standpoint. There’s something both very democratic and very mathematically sound about this. In the first place, it says that everybody’s thoughts matter. In the second, it says that reasoning is the heart of what we’re doing here.

I resolve to start employing this technique whenever I have classroom opportunities. I know that it’ll come out choppy at first, but I’ve seen the payoff and it’s worth it.

A nuance of the technique is to distinguish summarizing from evaluating. In the Ball video, the first student to summarize what another student said also wanted to say why he thought it was wrong; Ball intercepted this and kept him focused on articulating the reasoning, saving the evaluation step until after the original train of thought had been clearly explicated. Which brings me to a second beautiful thing she did.

Here was the problem:

What fraction of the big rectangle is blue?

What fraction of the big rectangle is blue?

The first student to speak argued that the blue triangle represents half because there are two equal wholes in the little rectangle at the top right.

He is, of course, wrong.

On the other hand, he is also, of course, onto something.

It was with breathtaking deftness that Deborah Ball proceeded to facilitate a conversation that both

(a) clearly acknowledged the sound reasoning behind his answer


(b) clarified that he missed something key.

It went something like this. I’m reconstructing this from memory so of course it’s wrong in the details, but in overall outline this is what happened –

Ball: Who can summarize what [Kid A] said?

Kid B: He said it’s half, but he’s just looking at the, he’s just…

Ball: It’s not time to say what you think of his reasoning yet, first we have to understand what he said.

Kid B: Oh.

Kid C: He’s saying that the little rectangle has 2 equal parts and the blue is one of them.

Ball [to Kid A]: Is that what you’re saying?

Kid A: Yeah.

Ball: So, what was the whole you were looking at?

Kid A [points to the smaller rectangle in the upper right hand corner]

Ball: And what were the two parts?

Kid A [points to the blue triangle and its complement in the smaller rectangle]

Ball: And are they equal?

Kid A: Yes.

Ball [to the rest of the class]: So if this is the whole [pointing at the smaller rectangle Kid A highlighted], is he right that it’s 1/2?

Many students: Yes.

Ball: The question was asking something a little different from that. Who can say what the whole in the question was?

Kid D [comes to the board and outlines the large rectangle with her finger]

Kid A: Oh.

I loved this. This is how you do it! Right reasoning has been brought to the fore, wrong reasoning has been brought to the fore, nobody feels dumb, and the class stays focused on trying to understand, which is what matters anyway.

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


Multiplying by 10,



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:


Dividing by 10,



-.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)

What She Said Monday, May 21 2012 

Three weeks ago Sue VanHattum and Kate Nowak recommended Bob and Ellen Kaplan’s Math Circle Training Institute. If you are looking for a PD opportunity this summer and you are interested in cultivating students thinking for themselves, I strongly second their recommendation.

This is a weeklong training on the campus of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana where you learn how to run a math circle in the spirit of the Kaplans. What that means is that you ask thought-provoking questions and you facilitate students discussing them. Heaven, right? The setup is that in the morning, the Kaplans run a math circle on you, and in the afternoon they bus in local kiddies for you to try out your thought-provoking questions on, and watch others do it, and give and receive feedback. At lunch and at night you hang out with like minded educators talking about math and education. The $850 includes room and board for the whole week.

I did this training in the summer of 2009 and it was a key step on my path to being the educator I am now. In 2007-8 I had come to the realization that my most central, pressing goal as an educator was to empower students to find their own mathematical curiosity, and I started stretching my pedagogical boundaries to find out what it would look and feel like to teach with this as the only goal. But I felt like I was reinventing the wheel. Reading the Kaplans’ book Out of the Labyrinth, I felt like I had found my comrades. Going to the Summer Institute, I felt like I had met them.

For example, Sue and Alex, and my fairy blogfamily Kate and Jesse Johnson. See what I mean?

Tangential to the math PD but also a wonderful benefit was the opportunity to spend a week on the Notre Dame campus. As a Jew I did not go into the experience expecting to be so moved by the shrines and sanctuaries of this Catholic institution, but I was. After my first experience with a labyrinth (the meditative kind), Alex McFerron said to me, “the Catholics really ace those sacred spaces.” True that.

Best Calculator *Ever* Wednesday, Apr 18 2012 

Somebody please tell me this is for real:

The QAMA calculator.

What can you do with this? Saturday, Jul 16 2011 

We interrupt our regularly scheduled long patch of radio silence to share with you an arresting, mathematically rich visual:


Thanks to Josh Kershenbaum for the tip.

UPDATE 7/17:

To clarify something: this image was originally created as an answer to a question, but I didn’t create a WCYDWT tag for that angle on it. To me, the image lands as (a) very beautiful; relatedly, (b) haunting, hard to get out of my head; therefore, (c) incipiently highly narrative – it is asking us to surround it with story, whether the original story conceived by the maker of the image or some other; and, lastly, (d) unavoidably mathematical. I don’t have a clear sense of the next move, but I do think this image opens a rich vein of something for a math teacher to use. The question “What can you do with this?” isn’t rhetorical: what’s your next move?

(See exchange with Dan Meyer below.)

The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman and other stories Monday, May 23 2011 

I just recently learned of an organization in NYC called the Grassroots Education Movement, which last Thursday premiered a documentary film with the awesome title The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman. They will apparently send you a copy for free; I just ordered mine.

Meanwhile, the city of New York continues to besiege its own public schools with budget cuts, looming layoffs, and a multi-year hiring freeze. (Having spent the year training 12 new teachers, let me not even get started on the hiring freeze.) Another thing that happened on Thursday was that East Side Community High School, a wonderful school on the Lower East Side where I used to teach and where the math teaching is strong enough that we placed four student teachers there this quarter, had its first fund-raiser. Like, big event, speakers, performances by students, pay to get in, as though it were a non-profit, carrying out its own civic mission and in need of private funding to do it, rather than a public school, charged with a civic mission by the state, which no longer sees fit to pay for it.

I missed both the documentary premiere and ESCHS’s fund-raiser because I was teaching the final class of a 3-session minicourse at Math for America on the fundamental theorem of arithmetic. Let me do a little reflecting on the execution:

At the end of the 2nd session, I gave participants about a half-hour to try to figure out something quite difficult. I attempted to scaffold this with some unobtrusive PCMI-style tricks in a previous problem set: sequences of problems with the same answer for a mathematically significant reason. It turned out not to be enough. There was high engagement the whole time, but no one seemed to be headed in my intended direction after that half-hour. On the other hand, that half-hour had made the group into a legit mathematical research community. What was afoot was a live process of trying things out, questioning, pressing on others’ logic, and generally behaving like research mathematicians. I was left with a dilemma. I had one session remaining. I wanted to protect that process, meaning I did not want to steal from them any of the deliciousness (or pain – also delicious) of the process they were in the middle of by offering them too much direction. But at the same time I felt I needed to guarantee that we would reach resolution. (Storytelling purposes.)

The solution I went with: I had them pick up in the final session where they left off, but I brought in a sequence of hints on little cut-up slips of paper. I tried to call them “idea-starters” as opposed to “hints” to emphasize that the game was you thinking on your own, and this is just to get you moving if you’re stuck, rather than I have a particular idea and I want you to figure out what it is, but I don’t think I was consistent with this, and I think they pretty much all called them “hints,” and I don’t think it really mattered. They were in an order from least-obtrusive to most-directive. None of them were very directive. Most importantly, I told the participants that if they wanted to get one, they needed to decide this as a table. (There were 6 tables with 3-4 folks each.)

How this went: a) it preserved the sense of mathematical community. I do not think there was much of a cost to participant ownership of what they found out. b) People were actually pretty hesitant to use the “idea-starters.” Most of them went untouched. This would probably be different with a different audience. (High schoolers instead of teachers?) c) The “idea-starters” worked great, but very slowly. I planned to spend 45 min letting them work in this arrangement, but after 45 min, most of the groups were still deep in the middle of something. After over an hour, I asked two groups to present what they had, however incomplete, for the sake of a change of pace and the opportunity for cross-pollination of ideas between the tables. I had actually meant to do a lot more of this but had forgot to mention it at the beginning. I let everybody work for another 10-15 min while these groups laid out their presentations. By the time they presented, I realized that there wasn’t enough time left for everyone to really get back to work afterward, but in any case their ideas had gotten more fully developed in that 10 min. so they actually had pretty much figured out everything I had wanted them to. I presented the final link in the logical chain, just to fill in the picture, in the last 5 minutes. It was pretty satisfying to me to watch the presentations, except that it happened so late in the session. This for two reasons. One was that I would have ideally liked to have time to encourage the participants to interrogate the presenters more, but there wasn’t time for that. The other was that I had intended to spend the last half-hour with the participants consolidating their understanding of the argument by applying it to a new situation in which they didn’t know the outcome and it would tell them; but we didn’t have time for that either. I really feel a loss about that.

If I were to repeat it I think I would interrupt much earlier to have people present partial work. The cross-pollination of ideas might or might not accelerate the figuring-out process. Either way I think the change of pace would have been good for concentration. Also, I could have put some of the questions I used as “idea-starters” into the Session 2 problem sets, trying to move some of the combustion I got in session 3 into session 2. But these would both be experiments as well. I hope I get a chance to try them.

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