Tag Archives: algebra

Questions about an enVisionMATH worksheet (part 1)

The 6-year old had Fall Break last week, so no homework and no enVisionMATH-blogging for me. Tonight, however, she brought home a new worksheet for her weekly homework, and a couple of things caught my eye. I thought I’d throw those out there to you all, along with a question or two, as a two-part blog post.

For the first post, take a look at this (click to enlarge):


  • In your own words, preferably those that a smart 6-year old could understand, what is the basic principle that this page is trying to get across?
  • What technique does this worksheet want kids to use when doing the Algebra problems?
  • What’s your opinion about the principle/technique you think the worksheet is trying to communciate? Reasonable? Natural? Likely to be useful, or used frequently later on?


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Filed under Early education, Education, enVisionMATH, Math, Teaching

In the trenches with enVisionMATH

It’s been back-to-school time for everybody in our household (hence an excuse for the light posting). We started classes at the college today, and last week the 4.5-year old went back to preschool full-time and the 6.5-year old started first grade. (The 1.5-year old is rocking the local daycare.) One of the biggest changes for the kids is for our first-grader, Lucy, since she has real homework for the first time. It’s not much; the expectation is about 20 minutes a night, Monday through Thursday. Some of that homework is math, which I was very excited about — but then that excitement turned to alert caution when I learned my daughter’s class was using enVisionMATH.

I wrote this post on enVisionMATH almost three years ago, basically laughing it off the blogosphere for its happy-clappy, uncritical acceptance of unproven digital nativist frameworks and for going way over the top with smartboards. Little did I know that my own offspring would be in the middle of it just three years later. So, in an effort to process what she’s doing (for me, for her, and for anybody else who cares), this is the first of what might be many posts about the specifics of enVisionMATH, as viewed by a parent whose kid happens to be learning from that curriculum, and who also happens to be a mathematician and math teacher.

I’ll start with the worksheet Lucy brought home this evening, called “Making 8”:

I’ve never had a kid in first grade before, nor can I remember how I did this stuff in first grade, nor have I recently worked with a kid in first grade. So I’m going to share my thoughts, but realize I have no reference for what’s “normal” pedagogy for 6-year olds and what’s not.

This worksheet is really about subtraction, although it never comes out and says so. The first two exercises are attempting to build a sense about subtraction by getting kids to think about how parts fit together to form a particular quantity. enVisionMATH appears to be really big on getting kids to recognize numbers visually rather than by counting. I’ll need to blog about this in a later post, but Lucy’s had some other exercises that, for example, stress the ability to recognize this:

…as the number 6, just by looking at it and without counting the dots, almost to the point of telling kids that they shouldn’t be counting anything but rather arranging things into patterns. Again, that’s for another post.

So, back to the worksheet, kids are supposed to look at the first collection of balloons and, knowing that there are eight of them, see — and only “see” — that 8 splits into 2 plus 6, and then 4 plus 4. I did a few more of these with Lucy using coins (no balloons on hand, sadly). Biggest challenge here: Keeping Lucy from just counting the black balloons and then counting the white balloons. And the only reason this was a challenge was because, as a math person, I knew what the worksheet was getting at: recognizing quantities through visual patterns rather than counting, so the unwritten rule is for kids not to count the balloons. But other parents probably didn’t know this, and their kids just counted. I don’t think this is necessarily wrong, but it doesn’t necessarily help in the next sections either.

The next section is rather startlingly labelled “Algebra”. Remember: This is a worksheet for a first grade class. Why we are bringing up the word “algebra” at this point is anybody’s guess. I suspect this is more to make parents, school boards, and accreditors happy than it is to start getting kids to feel comfortable with the word “algebra”.  But anyway, as you can see, the two problems are just the first two problems in reverse.

Lucy had a hard time with this. First of all, she didn’t understand what “the whole” meant. This is not the first time Lucy’s struggled not with the math but with relatively esoteric vocabulary in her math lessons. Last week she had a worksheet where she was to arrange three integers “in order from greatest to least” and “from least to greatest” and we had to take a moment to figure out what all of that meant. Maybe other people’s kids don’t struggle with that, but on the other hand it’s been verified that Lucy is reading at a third or fourth grade level right now, so I wonder if it’s just her.

We had to work these out using manipulatives. We started with fingers because that’s the first thing I thought of. So, I said, if the whole is 8:

…and one part is 3:

…then what was the other part?

Lucy was able to get the answer of “5” with no problem. But… I don’t think she got it the right way. Because when we moved to the next problem and the “one part” was 1, for her, the other part was still 5! This was because when I held up one finger on my left hand this time, there were of course five fingers on the right hand. I tried holding up eight and wiggling one finger instead of putting the “one part” on one hand, but that just confused her. So, we went back to coins and built a “balloon diagram” like in the first two problems, and she got them just fine (and without counting).

I don’t think exercises 3 and 4 are bad problems necessarily, but I do think they came in here way too early. Perhaps I’m missing the context of the actual classroom interaction between Lucy and her teacher, but it would seem like a better idea to do as many exercises like 1 and 2 as possible before moving on to the “algebra”. After all, if you stick to positive integers, there are only seven ways to fill in the blanks __ + __ = 8. (And doing all seven might help kids discover the commutative property early on, which seems like a much more important thing to bring up than “algebra” in first grade.)

And then, it’s not clear to me that doing “algebra” is a better idea here than just doing straight-up subtraction.  What’s to be gained by saying “the whole is 8; one part is 3; the other part is ____” versus “What is 8 minus 3?” Again, maybe I’m out of touch, but subtraction is a fundamental skill that algebra builds upon; doing algebra before subtraction seems a little backwards to say the least. A kid who is comfortable with subtraction will be able to do these whole/part problems in a snap by using subtraction. A kid doing these “algebra” problems basically has to invent subtraction in order to do them, or else draw pictures of balloons and start counting. It feels like the curriculum is trying to be intentionally nontraditional here, just for the sake of doing things differently rather than because it works better.

Then we come to the “Journal” question, which is downright sophisticated: “The whole is 8. One part is 8. What is the other part?” Here we reach serious abstraction: You can’t draw balloons like in exercises 1 and 2, and in fact resorting to physical props is tricky.As Derek Bruff mentioned in a tweet about this earlier this evening, the use of the word “part” in conjunction with the quantity 0 is already sort of questionable. What does it even mean to say the “part” is 0? What “part”? I don’t see a “part”. The natural way of interpreting what a “part” is, is as a bunch of objects. If there are no objects present, then there really isn’t a “part”.

We had to resort to thinking not about objects but containers that hold the objects. I took two books sitting nearby. I took my eight coins and said: The whole is 8. One part is 2 — and put 2 coins on one of the books. What is the other part? — and put the remaining coins on the other book. Lucy got the right answer quickly, and she did so by looking back at exercise 1 with the balloons and noticing it was the same problem with different objects, which I thought was pretty smart. I’ll make an algebraist out of her yet! Then I repeated with one part being 1. Then I did it with one part being 6; then 7. Then I said, “The whole is 8; one part is eight.” — putting all eight coins on one book. “What’s the other part?” — showing her my empty hands and an empty book. “Zero,” she said right away.

For her, and maybe not just her, “zero” represents not a size of a part but a state of emptiness of a container — or perhaps the size of a set. It’s how much you see when nothing is there. To map the “zero” concept onto a concept of “part” that presupposes something is there just doesn’t make sense. If this sounds like the New Math, I think we’re barking up the right tree.

The “Tell how you know” was especially tough because it involves getting Lucy to talk about what she did, even though she’s doing it at a sort of visceral level, and then spell the words she needs to use — which is the other type of homework she has. I got her to say out loud what she was thinking, and then I had her say it back to me and then helped her spell the words.

So we made it through the worksheet, but there are a lot of questions in my mind about the pedagogical design of this stuff. And how in the world does this sort of thing work in a household where the parents don’t have the time, patience, interest, fluency, or comfort level in mathematics to sit down and work all this out with the kid?

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Filed under Early education, Education, Math

Four things I used to think about calculus, and what I’ve replaced them with

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I’ve been teaching calculus since 1993, when I first stepped into a Calculus for Engineers classroom at Vanderbilt as a second-year graduate student. It hardly seems possible that this was 16 years ago. I can’t say whether calculus itself has changed that much in that span of time, but it’s definitely the case that my own understanding of how calculus is used by professionals in the real world has developed, from having absolutely no idea how it’s used to learning from contacts and former students doing quantitative work in business amd government; and  as a result, the way I conceive of teaching calculus, and the ways I implement my conceptions, have changed.

When I was first teaching calculus, at a rate of roughly three sections a year as a graduate student and then 3-4 sections a year as a newbie professor:

  • I thought that competency in calculus consisted in the ability to think through difficult mechanical calculations. For example, calculating \displaystyle{\lim_{x \to 9} \frac{9-x}{3-\sqrt{x}}} using multiplication by the conjugate was an essential component of learning limits.
  • There were certain kinds of problems which I felt were inseparable from a proper understanding of calculus itself: related rates, trigonometric integrals, and a few others.
  • I thought nothing of calculus that didn’t involve algebra. I’m not saying I held a low opinion of numerical or graphical calculus problems or concepts; I’m saying I didn’t even have them on my radar screen. I spent no time on them, because I didn’t know they were there.
  • Mechanical mastery was the main, and in some cases the sole, criterion for student learning.

Since then, I’ve replaced those criteria/priorities with these:

  • I care a lot less about mechanical fluency in algebra and trig, and I care a lot more about whether a student can read a problem for comprehension and then get an optimal solution for it in a reasonable amount of time and using a reasonable method.
  • I don’t think twice about jettisoning any of the following topics from a calculus course if they impede the students’ attainment of the previous bullet point: epsilon-delta proofs of limits*, algebraic limits that involve sophisticated algebra tricks that students saw five times three years ago, formal definitions of continuity, related rates problems, calculation of integrals using limits of Riemann sums, and so on. I always want to include these, and I do it if I can afford to do so from the standpoint of managing class time and maximizing student learning. But if they get in the way, out they go.
  • I care very much about whether students can do calculus on functions of all shapes and sizes — not only formulas but also tables of data and graphs — and whether students can convert one kind of function to the other, and whether students can judge the relative pros and cons of doing calculus on one kind of function versus another. The vast majority of functions real people encounter are not formulas — they are mostly evenly split between tables and graphs — and it makes no sense to spend 90% of our time in calculus working with formulas if they are so rarely the only option.
  • I don’t get bent out of shape if a student struggles with u-substitution and the like; but it drives me up the wall if a student gets the units of a derivative wrong, or doesn’t grasp that a derivative is a rate of change, or doesn’t realize that the primary purpose of calculus is to quantify what we mean by “rate of change”. I guess that means my priorities for student learning are much more about the big picture and the main ideas than they are the minute, party-trick algebra/trig calculations.

Perhaps the story would have been different if I’d remained tasked with teaching calculus to an all-engineer audience. But here, my classes are usually 50% business majors, about 25% biology or chemistry majors, and 15% undecided with only a fraction of the remaining 10% being declared majors in mathematics (which includes students in our 3:2 engineering program). But that’s the story as it is, and I’m sticking to it.

* Technically I never have to omit these, because we don’t do them in our intro Calculus class here.

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Filed under Calculus, Life in academia, Math, Teaching

Keeping things in context

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I’ve started reading through Stewart and Tall’s book on algebraic number theory, partly to give myself some fodder for learning Sage and partly because it’s an area of math I’d like to explore. I’m discovering a lot about algebra in the process that I should have known already. For example, I didn’t know until reading this book that the Gaussian integers were invented to study quadratic reciprocity. For me, the Gaussian integers were always just this abstract construction that  Gauss invented evidently for his own amusement (which maybe isn’t too far off from the truth) and which exists primarily so that I would have something to do in abstract algebra class. Here are the Gaussian integers! Now, go and find which ones are units, whether this is a principal ideal domain, and so on. Isn’t this fun?

Well, yes, actually it is fun for me, but that’s because I like abstract nonsense and I like just constructing rings out of nowhere and seeing what works and what doesn’t. But this approach to algebra is a lot harder to convince others to adopt, particularly college math majors whom I teach, most of whom struggle with abstraction. For them, any connection, no matter how tenuous, to the real world is a comfort and a reason to study. Quadratic residues aren’t exactly in the same league as designing airplanes in terms of “real world” utility, but it’s at least something that’s easy enough to understand and explain. Even if you care nothing for real world utility, it’s important to know why something was invented when you are setting about studying it. Otherwise you learn a subject in abstraction and without connections to its roots.

In fact, it seems like a lot of what we take as being canonical in abstract algebra was invented to study number theory. And yet, I have never taken a number theory course, and the number theory that was included in my studies of algebra was added mainly to set up the study of abstract groups and rings, as if to say that number theory exists to make studying algebra easier instead of the other way around as appears to be the case. And it’s not because I had a bad algebra education; I studied under some of the best algebraists around, but I never got the memo that abstract algebra was for something. I learned algebra mainly in isolation for the sole purpose of calculating homotopy groups. Likewise, my entire grad school training was focused on topology, which is supposedly a branch of geometry, but the only course in geometry I have in my background was Mrs. Buttrey’s class at William James Junior High School in the eighth grade — and that didn’t exactly give me the disciplinary perspective I needed to put topology in its proper context. (Even though it was a really good geometry class — thanks Mrs. B!)

I’ve been thinking that my post about the, er, pedagogically challenged way that Stewart Calculus does its examples about instantaneous velocity is really about the idea that you need to make sure that a person learning a new idea has some reason to learn it, before you give it to them in full complexity. Or at least before they’ve finished a course in it. Perhaps this idea extends to all of mathematics and maybe even beyond.

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Filed under Abstract algebra, Calculus, Education, Math, Number theory, Sage

Why do we overcomplicate calculus like this?

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In the Stewart calculus text, which we use here, the first chapter is essentially a precalculus review. The second chapter opens up with a treatment of tangent lines and velocities, with the idea of secant line slopes converging to tangent line slopes and average velocities converging to instantaneous velocities taking center stage.

Calculating average velocity is just a matter of identifying two time values and two position values and then performing two subtractions and a division. It is not complicated. Doing this several times for shorter and shorter time periods is also not complicated, and then using the results to guess the instantaneous velocity is a little complicated but not that bad once you understand the (essentially qualitative, not quantitative) idea behind shrinking the length of the interval to get an instantaneous value out of a sequence of averages.

So I nearly hit the roof when a student came in this morning needing help understanding the Student Solutions Manual for the Stewart text on a problem where you had to find the average velocity of a moving object from 2 seconds to 2.5 seconds. A formula for position is given, y = s(t). The simple way to do this — the way that works, does not dumb the process down, and yet makes it understandable to the broadest possible audience and therefore sets  up general understanding of the more complicated idea of derivative calculations later — is to calculate s(2.5), calculate s(2), and then calculate \frac{s(2.5)-s(2)}{2.5 - 2}. Fifth-graders do this.

Instead, the Student Solution Manual does it like this:

  • Let h represent some positive number.
  • Calculate and fully simply the expression \frac{s(2+h)-s(2)}{h}.
  • Plug in h = 0.5.

This is crazy, absurd, and downright dangerous. It’s as if Stewart, and the person who wrote the manual, really believe that calculus is made up of algebra, and students who are in calculus are uniformly comfortable and skilled with algebra to the point that their way is just as transparent and simple as calculating distance divided by time — as if the algebraic work that ensues when you perform step (2) above were as natural as the concept of velocity itself and students spoke algebra like a first or second language.

Yes, the book’s approach works — and it closely mirrors what’s going to happen later when we want to get an exact value of the instantaneous velocity by letting h \rightarrow 0. But that’s not what students are doing right now. What students are doing is trying to understand the concept of average velocity. It’s not complicated. The complications should come, if at all, on the back end of the subject — where we are trying to make the concept of instantaneous velocity precise through limit calculations — but not on the front end when students are just trying to figure out what’s going on.

In the middle of typing this post out, another student came in, equally confused about the exact same problem. I told him to close his solutions manual. I asked him: What’s the definition of average velocity? He thought about it, and then gave me the right definition. “OK, then,” I said, “How would you get the average velocity from t=2 to t=2.5 here?” And he gave me an exactly right description of the process. The relief on his face was palpable. He understood this concept but the student solutions manual made it appear that he didn’t! How bad is it when you need a manual for the student manual?

Calculus is a really simple subject when you get to its core. I wish the book treated it that way.

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Filed under Calculus, Education, Math, Teaching, Textbooks

Average velocity

Average velocity is another one of those basic calculus (really pre-calculus) topics that, like difference quotients, leave me at a loss for why students have such a hard time with them. There’s a very simple and common-sense definition, namely that the average velocity of an object with position s(t) from t = a to t = b is

\frac{s(b) - s(a)}{b-a}

(See? It’s just distance = rate * time solved for “rate”.) There are examples in the book and examples on the internet ad infinitum of how to calculate average velocities, and all of these are simple numerical calculations with absolutely no algebra involved. You have to know how to plug numbers into a function and then do basic arithmetic on your calculator. That’s all.

But students get so turned around. They calculate only the position at time t=b. They add up the positions at t=a and t=b and divide by 2 (“average”). They add in the numerator or denominator (or both). They get the fraction upside-down. And so on. Not all students of course, but many of them — a lot more of them than there should be. And in my calculus classes, it’s certainly not for lack of training data; we’ve done it in lecture, in group activities, in online videos, you name it.

With difference quotients, I can sort of understand where the difficulties might come from — it’s the algebra. But there’s no algebra at all in an average velocity calculation, and even if you struggle to get the concept, can’t you just memorize the formula for the time being? I try always to see student difficulties from the student’s point of view and remember that I was in their shoes once too, but honestly, I am finding it really hard to know where such a consistent mass misunderstanding of this particular idea comes from.

What’s with this topic? Anyone?


Filed under Calculus, Math, Teaching

Tuesday morning links

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Filed under Education, Geekhood, High school, Technology