Have an emotional reaction

I’m a big fan of James Tanton’s approach to solving difficult math problems.  Here are his steps:
Step 1.  Read the problem.
Step 2.  Have an emotional reaction to the problem.
Step 3.  Re-read the problem.
Step 4.  Do something.
I love Step 2, and I will often complain out loud in front of my students about the difficulty of a problem, the unfairness of it all.  I think it is fine to acknowledge that a problem is hard, that we hardly understand what is being asked, that we think the writer of the problem should be reincarnated as a fruit fly.
If we acknowledge our feelings of dismay and fear, then we normalize them.  When they become normal, then we can take a deep breath, re-read the problem and take a first step at a solution.  If students think their feelings of fear and dismay are not normal, they’ll begin to think they aren’t good at math.   In reality, many students (even mathy ones) react this way on the first read of a difficult problem.

Stream of Consciousness

I recently wrote to a homeschooling mom about avoiding an error in math documentation called stream of consciousness math notation.  This is basically the equivalent of a run on sentence or no punctuation.  You can probably understand the gist, but it would be inappropriate for formal writing.  Here’s an example:
Let’s say I have 3 apples and you give me 2 more.  Now I have 5.  Then a third person takes 4 away from me.  Here’s the stream of consciousness version of events:
3 + 2 = 5 - 4 = 1
Here it is as if the equality is meant to say, “and then what happens is…”  In reality the equality sign indicates that whatever is to the left is the same as whatever is to the right.  A chain of equalities means that everything between the equals signs are all equal to each other.  In the example above, I am writing that 3 + 2 = 1  This is no big deal with such small numbers because we can all see past the error to what is going on.  But I’m convinced that it leads to muddied thinking as the problems become more complex.  
If you see this kind of notation, then gently–preferably with humor–encourage your students to use correct logic.  

Is Fred on the committee?

I was just helping a student with his AoPS homework, when I came across the following related problems:

Eight people, including Fred, are in a club.  They decide to form a 3 person committee.  How many possible committees can be formed?

So we are choosing 3 people out of 8 or {8 \choose 3}.

How many possible committees include Fred?

Since Fred is taking one committee seat, that means we need to choose 2 more people from the remaining seven, or {7 \choose 2}.

How many possible committees do not include Fred?

Since we can’t choose Fred, we need to choose 3 members from the remaining 7 or {7 \choose 3}.

Since the total number of committees is equal to the number of of committees with Fred plus the number of committees without Fred, then we can say

{8 \choose 3} =  {7 \choose 2} +{7 \choose 3}.

Generally we call this Pascal’s Rule: {n \choose k} =  {n-1 \choose k-1} +{n-1 \choose k}.

Law of cosines, without the angle

IMG_20180203_091958.jpgI recently twice on the AMCs came across this problem solving technique for finding side lengths in a triangle with a cevian.  (A cevian is a segment from one vertex of a triangle to the opposite side.)  It uses the law of cosines, but the good news is it may not require an angle measure because it takes advantage of the fact that cos(180-\alpha)=-cos(\alpha).  Note in the diagram that the cevian creates these 2 angles.  By the law cosines a^2=c^2+e^2-2abcos(\alpha) and b^2=d^2+e^2-2abcos(180-\alpha) =  d^2+e^2+2abcos(\alpha).  Both equations have the length of the cevian, e, and the angle \alpha, so you can eliminate a variable and solve.


Bug on a surface


I recently reviewed a problem involving a bug on a cylinder.  We need to find the shortest distance from the bug’s original position, A, to B which is on the opposite side of the cylinder.  The bug can only crawl on the surface, and we’re given the height (8) and circumference (12).  One student wanted the bug to crawl along the lower circumference and then crawl straight up the side.

You can more easily visualize the shortest path by using your imagination to “cut” the cylinder along one side starting at point A, then “flatten” the cylinder into a 12×8 rectangle.  Now the shortest path is easily seen as the hypotenuse of the triangle with legs of 6 and 8.  (A 3-4-5 triangle hiding in plain sight!)


Other friendly triangles

Most students are familiar with triangles whose sides are Pythagorean triples like 3-4-5 and 5-12-13.  They may also want to add the 13-14-15 triangle to their list.  It contains both a 5-12-13 triangle and a 3-4-5 triangle (disguised as a 9-12-15, and sharing the altitude of length 12).  This triangle appears often on the AMCs and you’ll save yourself some time if you can recognize it early.


Angles on a clockface


I worked this problem with some 5th graders last year.  Since I was unsure about their exposure to angles, I began by asking if they knew the degree measure of a right angle, from 12 to 3 on the clock.  From there, I told them I would divide up that 90 degrees into 3 sections, drawing in the 1 and 2 on the clock.  How many degrees between the 12 and 1?

Then I followed the solution provided, and continued by asking them for the degree measure of the angle between 12 and 8, which is the degrees between the 2 hands at 8:00.  Then we stepped through how many degrees we lose by moving the minute hand from the 12 to between the 5 and 6 after 24 minutes.  Then we need to add the few degrees the hour hand moved in 24 minutes.

This approach reminded me that there are two approaches to teaching math.  One way is to repeat the same problem over and over, which little change until the algorithm in memorized.  Another more fun way is to begin with an elementary problem, and do only a small number of those before immediately continuing to progressively more difficult problems.

After I asked them how many degrees were in a right angle, the students then unprompted told me the degree measure from 12 to 6 and then 12 to 9, pretty much by rote.  But I didn’t want to hear their answers to elementary problems.  I wanted to quickly propel them to more difficult problems: the degree measure from 12 to 8 and then at 8:24.  I think they had fun solving this problem and internalized the concept better by solving 1 more difficult problem than a page full of identical easier problems.

(Source: Math Olympiad for Elementary and Middle School)