Teaching Three-Dimensional Geometry, II

A few weeks ago, I began a discussion of what I’d be presenting in a series of twenty (or so) 5—7 minute videos on three-dimensional geometry. I didn’t get very far then, so it’s time to continue….

So to recap a bit, I’ll begin with the usual cones/cylinders/spheres, looking at surface areas and contrasting flat surfaces with the surface of a sphere. Then on to a prelude to calculus by looking at the volume of a cone as a limiting case of a stack of circular disks.

Next, it’s on to polyhedra! A favorite topic of mine, certainly. Polyhedra are interesting, even from the very beginning, since there is still no accepted definition of what a polyhedron actually is. The exception is for convex polyhedra; a perfectly good definition of a convex polyhedron is the convex hull of a finite set of points not all lying in a single plane. Easy enough.

But once you move on to nonconvexity, uncertainties abound. For example, from a historical perspective, sometimes the object below was a polyhedron, and sometimes it wasn’t. Sounds odd, but whether or not you consider this object a polyhedron depends on how you look at the top “face,” which is a square with a smaller square removed from the center. Now is this “face” a polygon, or not? Many definitions of a polygon would exclude this geometrical object – which is problematic if you want to say that a polyhedron has polygons as faces.

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So this brings us to a definition of a polygon, which is problematic in its own way – to see why, you can look at a previous post of mine on the definition of a polygon.  Now the point here is not to resolve the issue in an elementary lecture, but rather point out that mathematics is not “black-and-white,” as students tend to believe. Also, it provides a nice example of the importance of definitions in mathematics.

Now this would be discussed briefly in just one video. Next would be the (obligatory) Platonic solids – where else is there to begin? The simplest starting point is the geometric enumeration by looking at what types of polygons – and how many – can appear at any given vertex of a Platonic solid. This enumeration is straightforward enough.

Next, I plan on computing the volume of a regular tetrahedron using the usual Bh/3 formula. This is not really exciting in and of itself, but in the next lecture, I plan to find the volume of a regular tetrahedron by inscribing it in the usual way in the cube by joining alternate vertices.

Of course you get the same result. But for those of us who work a lot in three-dimensional space, we deeply understand the simple algebraic equation, 2 \times 4=8. What I’m referring to, specifically, is that the number of vertices on a three-dimensional simplex is half the number of vertices of a three-dimensional hypercube.

This simple fact is at the heart of any number of intriguing geometrical relationships between polyhedra in three dimensions. In particular, and quite importantly, the simplex and the cross-polytope together fill space. This relationship is at the heart of many architectural constructions in additional to generating other tilings of space with Archimedean solids. But most students have never seen this illustrated before, so I think it is important to include.

Then on to a geometry/algebra relationship: having enumerated the Platonic solids geometrically, how do we proceed to take an algebraic approach? A fairly direct way is to use Euler’s formula to find an algebraic enumeration.

No, I don’t intend to prove Euler’s formula; by far my favorite (and best!) is Legendre’s proof which involves projecting a polyhedron onto a sphere and looking at the areas of the spherical polygons created. This is a bit beyond the scope of this series of videos; there simply isn’t time for everything. But it is important to note the role that convexity plays here; yes, there are other formulas for polyhedra which are not essentially “spheres,” but this is not the place to discuss them.

Next, I want to talk about “buckyballs.” I still have somewhat of a pet peeve about the nomenclature – Buckminster Fuller did not invent the truncated icosahedron – and so the physicists who named this molecule were, in my opinion, polyhedrally rather naïve. But, sadly (as is the case so many times), they did not come to me first before making such a decision…

The polyhedrally interesting fact about buckyballs is this: if a polyhedron has just pentagonal and hexagonal faces, three meeting at every vertex, then there must be exactly twelve pentagons. Always.

Now I know that the polyhedrally savvy among you are well aware of this – but for those who aren’t, I’ll show you the beautiful and very short proof. Once you’ve seen the idea, I don’t think you’ll ever be able to forget it. It’s just remarkable – even with 123,456,789 hexagons, just 12 pentagons.

So let P represent the number of pentagons on the buckyball, and H represent the number of hexagons. Then the number of vertices V is given by

V=\dfrac{5P+6H}{3},

since each pentagon contributes five vertices, each hexagon contributes six, and three vertices of the polygons meet at each vertex of the buckyball.

Moreover, the number of edges is given by

E=\dfrac{5P+6H}{2},

since the polygons on the buckyball meet edge-to-edge. Of course, F=P+H, since the faces are just the pentagons and hexagons. Substitute these expressions into Euler’s formula

V-E+F=2,

and what happens? It turns out that H cancels out, leaving P=12!

Amazes me every time. But what I like about this fact is that it is accessible just knowing Euler’s formula – no more advanced concepts are necessary.

And yes, there’s more! This is now Lecture #12 of my series, so I have a few more to describe to you. Until next time, when I caution you (rather strongly) against peeling a 100-dimensional potato….

Bay Area Mathematical Artists Seminars, XI

This past weekend marked the eleventh meeting of the Bay Area Mathematical Artists Seminars.  Our host this month was Scott Vorthmann, the mastermind behind vZome.  Scott lives in Saratoga, and so those participants who live in the San Jose area were glad of the short commute.

It seems that the content of our seminars is limited only by the creativity of the artists involved, meaning fairly limitless….  Scott invited anyone interested to come early — 1:00 instead of our usual 3:00 — and be involved in a Zome “build;” that is, the construction of a large and intricate model using Zome tools.  Today’s model?  The omnitruncated 24-cell!

This is not the place to have a lengthy discussion of polytopes in four dimensions.  In a nutshell, the 24-cell is a polytope in four dimensions with 24 octahedral facets.  This polytope is truncated in a particular way (called omintruncation), and then projected into three-dimensional space.

But there is just one problem with the projection Scott wanted to build.  You can’t build it with the standard Zome kit!  No matter.  Scott designed and 3D-printed his own struts — olive, maroon, and lavender.  If you’ve ever played around with ZomeTools, you’ll understand what a remarkable feat of design and engineering this is.

The building process is a modular one — six pieces like the one shown below needed to be built and painstakingly assembled together.

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Scott built two of the modules before anyone arrived, so we had something to work from.  That left just four more to complete….

The modules were almost done, but we needed to move on.  In addition to the Zome build, we had two other short presentations.   Andrea and Andy were planning to present a workshop at Bridges 2018 in Stockholm, but at the last minute, were unable to attend.  So they brought their ideas to present to us.

The basic idea is to encode a two-dimensional image using two overlays, as shown here.

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Your friend has an apparently random grid (pad) of black and white squares.  You want to send him a secret message; only you and he have the pad.  So you send him a second grid of black and white squares so that when correctly overlaid on the pad, an image is produced.

This is a great activity for younger students, too, since it can be done with premade templates and graph paper.  And even though Andrea and Andy were not able to attend Bridges, their workshop paper was accepted, and so it is in the Bridges archives.  So if you want to learn more about this method of encryption, you can read all the details about the process in their paper in the Bridges archives.

Our next short presentation was by pianist Hans Boepple, a colleague of Frank Farris at Santa Clara University.  Frank happened to have a very stimulating conversation with Hans about a mathematics/music phenomenon, and thought he might like to present his idea at our meeting.

The idea came from a time when Hans happened to look down a metal cylinder of tubing, like you would find at a hardware store.  It seemed that there was an interesting pattern of reflections along the sides of the tubing, and knowing about music and the overtone series, he wondered if there was any connection with music.

Here is part of a computer-generated image of what Hans produced using paper and pencil many years ago:

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How was this picture generated?  Below is how you’d start making the image.

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You can see that the red lines take two zigzags to move from one corner of the rectangle to another, the blue lines take three zigzags, the green four, and the gold lines take five.  If you keep adding more and more lines, you get rather complex and beautiful patterns like the one shown above.  Those familiar with the overtone series will see an immediate connection.

Of course, the mathematical question is about proving various properties of this pattern.  It turns out that the patterns are related to the Ford circles; BAMAS participant Jacob Rus has created an interactive version of this diagram.  Feel free to explore!

In any case, we were delighted that Hans could join us and share his fascination with the relationship between mathematics and music.  You can  learn more about Hans in this interview in The Santa Clara, which is Santa Clara University’s school newspaper.

When Hans finished his presentation, it was time to finish building the omnitruncated 24-cell.  It was quite amazing, as Scott is certainly one of the foremost experts on ZomeTools in the world.  Here is the finished sculpture, suspended from the ceiling in his home.  Just getting the model up there was an engineering feat in its own right!

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It is difficult to describe the intricacy of this model from just a few pictures.

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Here is an intriguing perspective of the model, highlighting the parallelism of the blue Zome struts.  It seems there is no end to the geometrical relationships you can find hidden within this model.

And, as usual, the afternoon didn’t end there.  Scott arranged to have Thai food — one of our favorites! — catered in, and we all chipped in our fair share.  We all were having such a great time, the last of us didn’t leave until about 8:30 in the evening.  Another successful seminar!

It is quite heartwarming to see so many so willing to take on hosting our Bay Area Mathematical Artists Seminars.  We have all enjoyed these meetings so much, and we are so glad they continue to happen.  I am confident there will be many, many more delightful Saturday afternoons to experience….

Teaching Three-Dimensional Geometry, I

I have recently had a rather unusual opportunity.  I’ve talked a bit over the last few months about my consulting work producing online videos for a flipped classroom; I’ve been working busily on the Geometry unit.

Now the last section of this unit is on three-dimensional geometry, and I’ve been given pretty free reign as to what to cover in this 20-lectures series of 5-7 minute videos.  And given my interest in polyhedra (which I could focus on exclusively with no shortage of things to discuss!), I felt I had a good start.

But the challenge was also to cover some traditional topics (cones, cylinders, spheres, etc.) — as well as more advanced topics — while not using mathematics beyond what I’ve used in the first several sections of the Geometry unit.

There is, of course, no “correct” answer to this problem.  But I thought I’d share how I’d approach this series of lectures, since geometry is such a passion of mine — and I know it is for many readers as well.  The process of reforming high school geometry courses is now well underway; I hope to contribute to this discussion with today’s post.

Where to start?  Cones and cylinders — a very traditional beginning.  But I thought I’d start with surface areas.  Now for cylinders, this is pretty straightforward.  It’s not much more difficult for cones, but the approach is less obvious than for cylinders.

Earlier in the unit, we derived the formula for the area of a sector of a circle, so finding the lateral surface area of a cone is a nice opportunity to revisit this topic.  And of course, finding the lateral surface area of a cylinder involves just finding the area of a rectangle.

Now what do both of these problems have in common?  Their solution implies that cones and cylinders are flat.  In other words, we reduce what is apparently a three-dimensional problem (the surface area of a three-dimensional object) to a two-dimensional problem.

This is in sharp contrast to finding the surface area of a sphere — you can’t flatten out a sphere.  In fact, the entire science of cartography has evolved specifically in response to this inability.

So this is a nice chance to introduce a little differential geometry!  And no, I don’t really intend to go into differential geometry in any detail — but why not take just a minute in a lecture involving spheres to comment on why the formulas for the surface areas of cones and cylinders are fairly easy to derive, and why — at this level — we’re just given the formula for the surface area of a sphere.

I try to mention such ideas as frequently as I can — pointing out contrasts and connections which go beyond the usual presentation.  Sure, it may be lost on many or most students, but it just may provide that small spark for another.

I think such comments also get at the idea that mathematics is not a series of problems with answers at the back of the book…on the face of it, there is no apparent reason for a student to think that finding the surface area of a cone would be simpler than finding the surface area of a sphere.  This discussion gets them thinking.

Next, I’m planning to discuss Archimedes’ inscription of a sphere in a cylinder (which involves the relative volumes).  This is a bit more straightforward, and it’s a nice way to bring in a little history.

I also plan to look at inscribing a sphere in a right circular cone whose slant height is the same as the diameter of the base, so that we can look at a two-dimensional cross-section to solve the problem.  In particular, this revisits the topic of incircles of triangles in a natural way — I find it more difficult to motivate why you’d want to find an incircle when looking at a strictly two-dimensional problem.

Now on to calculus!  Yes, calculus.  One great mystery for students is the presence of “1/3” in so many volume formulas.  There is always the glib response — the “3” is for “three” dimensions, like the “2” in “1/2 bh” is for “two” dimensions.

When deriving these formulas using integration, this is actually exactly a fairly solid explanation.  But for high school students who have yet to take calculus?

It is easy to approximate the volume of a right circular cone by stacking thin circular disks on top of each other.  If we let the disks get thinner and take more and more of them, we find the volume of the cone as limit of these approximations.  All you need is the sum

\displaystyle\sum_{k=1}^n k^2=\dfrac{n(n+1)(2n+1)}6.

I plan to prove that

\displaystyle\sum_{k=1}^nk=\dfrac{n(n+1)}2,

and then prove (or perhaps just suggest — I’m not sure yet) the formula for the sum of squares.

I think a fairly informal approach could be successful here.  But I do think such discussions are necessary — in calculus, I’ve routinely asked students why certain formulas they remember are true, and they struggle.  As a simple example, students can rarely tell me why the hypotenuse of a 30-60-90 triangle is twice as long as the shorter leg.

When teachers just give students formulas and ask them to plug numbers in to get answers to oversimplified word problems, of course there is a sense of mystery/confusion — where did these formulas come from?  I’m hoping that this discussion suggests that there is a lot more to mathematics than just a bunch of formulas to memorize.

As usual, I realize I have much more to say on this topic than I had originally supposed…I’ve only discussed up to the fifth lecture so far!  Since I have not had extensive experience teaching more traditional topics at the high school, it has been an interesting challenge to tackle the usual geometry topics in a way that grabs students’ attention.  It’s a challenge I enjoy, and of course I’ll have much more to say about it next week….

 

Guest Blogger: Scott Kim, IV

Well, this is the last installment of Scott Kim’s blog post on transforming mathematics education!  These are all important issues, and when you think about them all at once, they seem insurmountable.  It takes each of us working one at a time in our local communities, as well as groups of us working together in broader communities, to effect a change.  What is crucial is that we not only discuss these issues, but we do something about them.  Those of us who participated in the discussion a month ago at the Bay Area Mathematical Artists Seminar are definitely interested in both discussing and doing.

Scott suggests we need to move past our differences and find constructive ways to act.  No, this isn’t easy.  But we need to do this to solve any problem, not just those surrounding mathematics education.  It’s time for some of us to start working on these issues, and many others of us to continue working.  We can’t just sit and watch, passively, any more.  It’s time to act.  What are you waiting for?

Level 4. Resistance from SOCIETY (quarreling crew)

Sailing is a team sport. You can’t get where you want to go without a cooperative crew. Similarly, math education reform is a social issue. You can’t change how math is taught unless parents, teachers, administrators and policy makers are on board. Most adults cling to the way they were taught as if it were the only way to teach math, largely out of ignorance — they simply aren’t aware of other approaches.

Here are three ways society needs to change the way it thinks about math and math education in order for change to happen.

4a. Attitude. The United States has an attitude problem when it comes to math teachers. First, we underpay and under-respect teachers. And the situation is only getting worse as math graduates flock to lucrative high-tech jobs instead of the teaching profession. The book The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way describes how FInland turned their educational system around — they decided to pay teachers well, set high qualification standards, and give teachers considerable autonomy to teach however they think is best, with the remarkable result that student respect for teachers is extremely high.

Second, it is socially acceptable, even a badge of honor, to say that you were never good at math. You would never say the same thing about reading. Many people do not in fact read books, but no one would publicly brag that they were never good at reading. Our society supports the idea that parents should read to their kids at night, but perpetuates the idea that being no good at math is just fine.

Solution: respect teachers by paying them well, and value math literacy as much as we value reading literacy.

4b. Vision. The national conversation about math education in the United States is locked in a debate about whether we should teach the basics, or the concepts. As a result we see over the decades that the pendulum swings back and forth between No Child Left Behind and standardized testing on one extreme, and New Math and Common Core Math on the other extreme. As long as the pendulum keeps swinging, we will never settle on stable solution. The resolution, of course, is that we need both. In practice, schools that overemphasize rote math find that they must supplement with conceptual exercises, and schools that overemphasize conceptual understanding find that they must supplement with mechanical drill. We need both rote skills and conceptual understanding, just as kids learning to read need both the mechanical skills of grammar and vocabulary, and the conceptual skills of comprehension and argument construction.

Solution: We need a vision of math education that seamlessly integrates mechanical skills and conceptual understanding, in a way that works within the practical realities of teacher abilities and schoolday schedules. To form a vision, don’t just ask people what they want. A vision should go further than conventional wisdom. As Henry Ford is reported to have said (but probably didn’t), “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Or as Steve Jobs did say, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

4c. The will to act. As a child I grumbled about the educational system I found myself in. As a young adult I started attending math education conferences (regional meetings of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics), and was astonished to find that all the thousands of teachers at the conference knew perfectly well what math education should look like — full of joyful constructive activities that challenged kids to play with ideas and think deeply. Yet they went back to their schools and largely continued business as usual. They knew what to do, but were unwilling or unable to act, except at a very small scale.

Solution: Yes, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. And change is slow. But if we’re to get where we want to go, we need to think bigger. Assume that big long lasting change is possible, and in the long term, inevitable. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I’m starting my small group. Others I know are starting theirs. What about you? 


Guest Blogger: Scott Kim, III

Today, I’ll post the third installment of Scott Kim’s blog on transforming mathematics education.  But before jumping into that, I want to share a little about Bridges 2018, which just took place in Stockholm, Sweden.  Because of my move and career shift, I decided not to go — at the time I would’ve needed to make travel arrangements, I didn’t even know whether I’d be living on the West coast or the East coast when I’d need to catch my flight!

In any case, my Twitter feed has been buzzing recently with tweets from Stockholm, and some have featured participants in the Bay Area Mathematics Artists Seminars.  Monica Munoz-Torres tweeted about Frank Farris’s talk on vibrating wallpaper patterns, which you may recall he gave at our March meeting of the BAMAS at Santa Clara University.

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And the Bridges Program Committee announced that Roger Antonsen won Best in Show for 2-dimensional Artwork for his piece, “Six Perfect In-Shuffles With 125 Cards and Five Piles.”

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Congratulations, Roger!

OK, now we’ll move on to Scott Kim’s commentary on transforming mathematics education.  His next point addresses a prevailing issue in mathematics education:  advances in technology relevant to teaching mathematics are moving along at a rate which outpaces curriculum development.

And it’s not just that.  Even if curriculum could be reimagined at a pace to keep up with technology, teachers would need to be retrained to use the new curriculum with the new technology.  Not just retrained on the job, but while students at university — meaning that institutions of higher education would need to have their faculty keep up as well.  This means resources of time and money, and the willingness and ability of mathematics and education faculty, as well as school districts, to embrace change.  A tall order, to say the least.

I could go on at length about this topic, but let’s give Scott a chance.  Again, if you just can’t wait for the fourth installment, feel free to go to Scott’s blog, where you see the post in its entirety.

Level 3. The wrong MATH (sailing in the wrong direction)

The mathematics we teach in school is embarrassingly out of date. The geometry we teach is still closely based on Euclid’s Elements, which is over 2000 years old. We continue to teach calculus even though in practice calculus problems are solved by computer programs. Don’t get me wrong: geometry and calculus are wonderful subjects, and it is important to understand the principles of both. But we need to re-evaluate what is important to teach in light of today’s priorities and technologies.

Here are three ways to update what we teach as mathematics.

3a. Re-evaluate topics. The Common Core State Standards take small but important steps toward rebalancing what topics are taught in math. Gone are arcane topics like factoring polynomials. Instead, real world mathematics like data collection and statistics are given more attention. As Arthur Benjamin argues in a brief TED talk, statistics is more important than calculus as a practical skill.

Solution: give kids an overview of mathematical topics and what they are for, long before they have to study them formally.

3b. Teach process. The widely used Writer’s Workshop program teaches the full process of writing to students as young as kindergarten. The process accurately mirrors what real writers do, including searching for a topic, and revising a story based on critique. We need a similar program for the process of doing mathematics. The full process of doing math starts with asking questions. Math teacher Dan Meyer argues passionately in his TED talk that we do students a terrible disservice when we hand them problems with ready-made templates for solution procedures, instead of letting them wrestle with the questions themselves. Here is my diagram for the four steps of doing math. Conrad Wolfram created a similar diagram for his Computer-Based Math initiative.

Solution: give kids an explicit process model for problem solving.

3c. Use computers. In an era where everyone has access 24/7 to digital devices, it is insane to teach math as if those devices didn’t exist. In his TED talk, Conrad Wolfram points out that traditional math teachers spends most of their time teaching calculating by hand — the one thing that computers do really well. By letting students use mathematical power tools like Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha, teachers can spend more time teaching kids how to ask good questions, build mathematical models, verify their answers, and debug their analysis — the real work of doing mathematics. And students can work on interesting real-world problems, like analyzing trends in census data, that are impractical to tackle by hand.

Solution: build and use better computer tools for doing math. Revamp the curriculum to assume the presence of such tools. Emphasize solving interesting problems, de-emphasize or delay learning about the mathematical mechanics for carrying out the computations. In other words, teach mechanics on a need-to-know basis.

Next week will feature the Level 4 of Scott’s remarks.  Until then!

Guest Blogger: Scott Kim, II

Today, I’ll continue with reblogging Scott Kim’s in-depth post about transforming mathematics education.  You might want to read last week’s post to get caught up.

I will say that the discussion generated quite a bit of interest.  Participants have been actively responding to each other in a very lively email thread.  The comments and discussions are still ongoing — I am having a hard time keeping up with them!  But in a later post, I’ll summarize some key ideas and observations made by members of the group.

But for now, I’d like to turn it over to Scott Kim.  Again, if you’re anxious to read the entire post, please feel free to go to his blog.  Or just be patient….  But you can see by looking at the heading that Scott is addressing a very important issue next.  I can still recall — when teaching gifted high school mathematics and science students — really understanding where the question “When am I going to ever use this?” comes from.

The answer is pretty simple.  Bright students want to know.  When I first started teaching at university, I thought it was the students’ job to find motivation for doing mathematics — after all, they were paying a lot of money for their education.

But I eventually realized that there are only about three months between the end of high school and the beginning of college.  Nothing magical happens to students to transform them into self-motivated human beings, hungering for knowledge for its own sake.

Actually, one of my goals is never to hear the question “When am I ever going to use this?” again.  If I do a good job teaching and motivation concepts, students will already be able to answer that question, and won’t need to ask it any more.

Yes, it’s a more challenging way to teach.  But I can tell you, for me, it has been worth it.

Now I’ll let Scott take over.  Enjoy!  We’ll look at the third level next week.

Level 2. Lack of MEANING (leaks)

The most common complaint in math class is “when are we ever going to use this?” And no wonder; the closest most kids get to using math meaningfully is word problems, which are typically dull mechanical problems, dressed up in dull mechanical narratives.

Traditional mathematics education focuses on teaching rote computational procedures — adding, dividing, solving quadratic equations, graphing formulas, and so on — without tying procedures to meaningful situations. Unfortunately most adults, including many teachers and administrators, think this is how it must be. But teaching only the rote procedures of math is like teaching only the grammar and spelling of English, without explaining what words mean, or letting kids read books. Mechanics without meaning is not just deathly boring, it is much harder to learn.

Here are three ways to plug the leaks of meaningless math.

2a. Use math. In our increasingly digital society, kids spend less and less time playing with actual physical stuff. All the more reason to get students out of their desks and into the world, where they can encounter math in its natural habitat, preferably integrated with other subject areas. My friend Warren Robinett told me “a middle-school teacher I knew would, after teaching the Pythagorean Theorem, take the kids out to the gym, and measure the length and width of the basketball  court with a tape measure. Then they would go back to the classroom and predict the length of the diagonal. Then they would go back to the gym, and measure the actual diagonal length. She said some of the kids would look at her, open-mouthed, like she was a sorceress.”

Solution: use problems that kids care about, and excite student interest.

2b. Read about math. Before we learn to speak, we listen to people speak. Before we learn to write, we read books. Before we play sports, we see athletes play sports. The same should apply to math. Before we do math ourselves, we should watch and read about other people doing math, so we can put math in a personal emotional context, and know what the experience of doing math is like. But wouldn’t reading about people doing math be deadly boring? Not if you are a good story teller. After all, mathematics has a mythic power that weaves itself into ancient tales like Theseus and the Minotaur. My favorite recent math movie is a retelling of the classic math fable Flatland, which appeals as much to my 7-year-old daughter as to my adult friends. Here’s a list of good children’s books that involve math.

Solution: read good stories about math in use.

2c. Ask your own questions. In math class (and much of school) we answer questions that someone else made up. In real life questions aren’t handed to us. We often need to spend much time identifying the right question. One way to have students ask their own questions is to have them make up their own test questions for each other. Students invariably invent much harder questions than the teacher would dare pose, and are far more motivated to answer questions invented by classmates than questions written by anonymous textbook committees. Mathfair.com goes further to propose that kids build and present their own physical puzzles in a science-fair-like setting. Kids can apply whatever level of creativity they want. Some focus on art. Some on story. Others add new variations to the puzzles or invent their own.

Solution: Give kids freedom to ask their own mathematical questions, and pursue their natural curiosity.

If we plug the leaks of meaningless math, we will grow a generation of resourceful mathematicians who understand how to solve problems. But are we teaching the right mathematics?  (To be continued….)

Transforming Mathematics Education: BAMAS, X

This past Saturday marked the tenth meeting of the Bay Area Mathematical Artists Seminars.  You might recall (see the post about Bay Area Mathematical Artists Seminars, VI) that at a recent meeting, we had a very stimulating dinner conversation about the future of mathematics education, with Scott Kim helping to guide the conversation.

Everyone was so engaged, it was unfortunate that the conversation had to come to an end.  So I invited Scott to lead a more formal discussion at a later meeting of the BAMAS.  We met at BAMAS member Stacy Speyer’s place — thanks for hosting, Stacy!

The discussion was quite animated.  Scott prepared a handout based on a lengthy blog post he wrote about various issues revolving around mathematics and mathematics education.  He graciously gave me permission to reblog his ideas.  The post is rather lengthy, so I’ll share it in installments.  You can go to Scott’s blog yourself if you can’t wait to read more.  So without further ado, I’ll let guest blogger Scott Kim take the wheel.  His original post was dated July 6, 2014.

Navigating Math Education

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Imagine that you are a sailor on a leaky boat that is on fire, sailing in the wrong direction, with a quarreling crew. Which problem would you fix first?

Well, that depends. If the leak is slow and the fire is raging, then you would put out the fire first. If the leak is gushing and the fire is small and contained, you would fix the leak first. It makes sense to fix the most urgent problem first.

What you would NOT do is fix one problem and declare victory. If your goal is to get to your destination safely, then you must fix ALL the problems, no matter how difficult. Anything less will not get you where you want to go.

Such is the situation with math education. The problems are so difficult and so numerous that it is tempting to fix one problem, and give up on the rest. And certainly we have to prioritize if we are to make progress. But if we are to get the ship of math education back on course, then we, collectively, must fix ALL the problems of math education. Nothing less will get us where we want to go.

Fixing all of math education may sound impossible or impractical. And indeed it is a formidable challenge. Well-meaning entrepreneurs who have launched successful businesses frequently grind to a halt when they try to start their own innovative schools. Resistance comes from all sides — standardized testing, textbook publishers, parents, administrators, government officials, and the students themselves trying to get into college.

But change is in the wind. America is losing its competitive edge, colleges are becoming impractically expensive, and the internet makes us dream of free education right now for everyone. I say we face the problem with eyes wide open, assess the full range of challenges we face, and look for the smartest moves that get us where we want to go.

With that in mind, here is my survey of the problems plaguing math education, and steps we can take to fix them. I’ve grouped the challenges into four levels that range from the tactical to the strategic: Mechanics, Meaning, Math, and Society.


Level 1. Faulty MECHANICS (fire)

The most obvious and urgent problem is that the mechanics of math are taught as a series of blink and you’ll miss it lessons, with little opportunity to catch up.

This one-size-fits-all conveyor belt approach to education guarantees that virtually everyone gradually accumulates holes in their knowledge — what Khan Academy founder Sal Khan calls Swiss cheese knowledge. And little holes in math knowledge cause big problems later on — problems in calculus are often caused by problems in algebra, which in turn are caused by even earlier problems with concepts like fractions and place value.

Here are three ways to fight the fire of poor pacing.

1a. Self-paced learning. The Khan Academy addresses the urgent problem of pacing by providing short video lectures that cover all of K-12 math. While the lectures themselves are fairly traditional, the online delivery mechanism allows students to work at their own pace — to view lectures when and where they want, and to pause and rewatch sections as much as they need. All lectures are freely available at all times, so kids can review earlier concepts, or zoom ahead to more advanced concepts. Short online quizzes make sure that kids understand what they are watching. And with an online dashboard that shows exactly how far each child has progressed, teachers can assign lectures as homework, and use class time to tutor kids one on one on exactly what they need.

Solution: the “flipped classroom.”

1b. Visual learning. I love the Khan Academy. My son hated it, because he, like many students, is a visual learner, and Sal Kahn’s lecture stick largely to traditional symbolic math notation. He would have done better with a visual experiential curriculum. Some kids are primarily audio or kinesthetic learners, some learn best socially. The bottom line is that different kids learn in different ways, and no one way is right for everyone. Education needs to address all learners, not just kids who learn in words.

Solution: teach every lesson three different ways.

1c. Testing for understanding. Nothing can change in education unless testing changes. Traditional standardized tests born of the No Child Left Behind era use multiple choice tests that assess only rote memorization of routine math facts and procedures. The new Common Core State Standards for mathematics, now entering schools across the nation, replaces standardized multiple choice tests with richer tests that include essay questions graded by human beings — a better way to assess mathematical understanding.

Solution: better assessment.

If we douse the fire of poor pacing in math education, we will increase test scores and student confidence. But there is more to mathematics than teaching the mechanics well.

I hope your interested is piqued!  Scott will continue next week….