The image of function in school mathematics

Well, oops, took a little break from blogging there. But I’m back now.

In the course of working on an article with the same title as this blog post for a publication about Felix Klein, I did a Google Image search on the word “function,” with the following results.

FunctionsGoogle

I find this fascinating for a number of reason. First, notice the proliferation of representations: graphs, tables, formulas, input-output machines, and arrow diagrams (those blobs in the second row). A corresponding search in a French, German, or Japanese gives a very different result. Here is the Japanese one (where I searched google.co.jp for “関数”).

FunctionGoogleJapan

This has a much greater focus on graphs, and no arrow diagrams. The French and German ones are even more focused on graphs; a search in Spanish, however, gives results similar to English.

What does all this mean? Well, I’ll be discussing this more in the article I’m writing, but for now I have just a couple of observations.

First, the English language search reveals a preoccupation with examples of relations that are not functions, with examples of graphs, arrow diagrams, and tables. I have always found this preoccupation perverse: the examples are artificial, and there is very little to be gained from them except an ability to answer questions about them on tests. This preoccupation is not evident in the searches in other languages.

Second, take a look at these two representations, from the English and Japanese language searches:

Apple_slicing_function

080512_ichikawa_02.

Together they represent a case study in designing representations. Can you see what’s wrong with the one on the top? A function is supposed to have only one output for every input. Does an apple slicing machine have that property?* The representation on the bottom, on the other hand, clearly represents how to think of addition as a function with two inputs.

I’m interested to hear readers’ thoughts on the representations that come up in these and other searches. Maybe someone who can navigate Baidu can tell us what the Chinese results are.

 

*To be fair, the authors of the web page with the apple slicing machine are clearly aware of the problem. But their contortions to get around it only emphasize the fundamental flaws in the representation.

Math is not linear, but time is

A short post today with a question for our readers.

A number of years ago there was a popular piece by Alison Blank titled Math is not linear, which gave a number of ideas about the order in which we teach mathematics. A curriculum writer has to grapple with the fact that, although math is not linear, time is. Hermione Granger’s time turner does not actually exist. Tuesday comes after Monday, and Tuesday’s lesson comes after Monday’s lesson and, in the end, a teacher has to decide what to teach on each day; that is, they have to decide on a linear order in which to teach mathematics. The gist of “Math is not linear” is that that order need not be a dry march through a logical hierarchy of topics. You can, as Blank says, go on tangents, foreshadow topics to come, connect back to previous topics, and give students problems that create a need for a new topic. These are all great ideas.

Our question is: what other ideas do people have to make sure that the sequence of lessons in a course makes sense to students and makes sense mathematically? Do you recommend any books or articles that might help answer these questions? We have some ideas and will be writing some posts about them, but want to hear from the community as well. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter with @IllustrateMath, #timeislinear.

 

Illustrative Mathematics 6–8 Math

I can’t help writing this off-cycle blog post to celebrate the release of Illustrative Mathematics 6–8 Math  last Friday, a proud achievement of the extraordinary team of teachers, mathematicians and educators at Illustrative Mathematics (IM), one that I didn’t dream of when I started IM almost 7 years ago with a vision of building a world where all learners know, use, and enjoy mathematics.

Conceived initially as a  project at the University of Arizona to illustrate the standards with carefully vetted tasks, IM has grown into a not-for-profit company with 25 brilliant and creative employees and a registered user base some 40,000+ strong. Our partnership with Open Up Resources (OUR) to develop curriculum started a little over 2 years ago when we submitted a pilot grade 7 unit on proportional relationships to the K–12 OER Collaborative, as OUR was then known. In the fall of 2015, not understanding that it couldn’t be done, we agreed to write complete grades 6–8 curriculum ready for pilot in the 2016–17 school year.

One of the things I love about the curriculum is the careful attention to coherent sequencing of tasks, lesson plans, and units. The unit on dividing fractions is an example, appropriate to mention in the middle of this series of blog posts with Kristin Umland on the same topic. It moves carefully through the meanings of division, to the diagrams that help understand that meaning, to the formula that ultimately enables students to dispense with the diagrams. It illustrative perfectly our balanced approach to concepts and fluency. Kristin and I will be talking about that more in the next few blog posts.

 

 

A world without order (of operations)

What would such a world look like? Like this:
$$
(((3\times(x\times x)) – (7\times x)) + 2).
$$What a world it would be! A world without ambiguity! A world where PEMDAS would just be P! A world where they would have to relocate the parenthesis keys to a more convenient location on the keyboard!

Parentheses, and order of operations, tell us how to read the meaning of an expression, how to parse it, not what to do with it. In the expression above, every matched pair of parentheses contains something of the form $$
(\mbox{blob}) * (\mbox{another blob}), \qquad (\mbox{where * stands for $+$, $-$, or $\times$}),
$$ unless the blobs are just numbers or letters, in which case we don’t surround them with parentheses. We always know exactly what things we are adding, subtracting, or multiplying. Starting with the outermost parentheses, we see it contains the sum of 2 and a blob. Looking inside that blob we see that it contains a blob minus another blob. And so on. The structure of the expression can be represented in a diagram:

So what is order of operations about, and why do we need it? Well, that’s a lot of parentheses up there, so it is useful to have some conventions about when things are understood to be a blob, without actually putting in the grouping symbols (blobbing symbols?). First, any sequence of multiplications and divisions is understood to be a blob (that’s the precedence of multiplication and division over addition and subtraction). Second, in a sequence of additions and subtractions, or of multiplications and divisions, you read from left to right. (Actually, there is disagreement about this last one in the case of multiplication and division, but never mind.) The first rule allows us to write the expression above as
$$
((3\times x\times x- 7\times x) + 2).
$$The second rule allows us to leave out all the remaining parentheses. And, of course, we have other conventions about representing multiplication by juxtaposition, and about exponent notation, which allow us to write
$$
3x^2 – 7x + 2.
$$

Calling it order of operations is problematic because it can be misconstrued as suggesting that there is a specific order in which you must perform operations. There isn’t, except insofar as you sometimes have to wait to perform an operation until you have calculated all the blobs in it. But, for example, there is no law that says you have to do the multiplications first in $101\times56-99\times56$ and, in fact, it is more efficient to factor out the $56$ and do a subtraction first. Order of operations tells us how to read this expression: it’s a difference of two products, not a product of three factors the middle one of which is a subtraction. But it doesn’t tell us how to compute it. The word “order” in “order of operations” is best understood as referring to order in the sense of hierarchy, as in the diagram above.

Outside of textbook school mathematics the order of operations is a matter of common law, not constitutional law, and it’s a bad idea to make a federal case out of it on assessments. For example, dinging a student for interpreting $x/2y$ as $x/(2y)$ rather than $(x/2)y$ would be unreasonable; many scientists would do the same thing. If there is any danger of ambiguity we should put the clarifying parentheses in.

 

A few final thoughts:

    • thanks to Brian Bickley for suggesting the topic for this post
    • there’s a nice discussion of the history of order of operations over at the Math Forum
    • and bonus question: do we have to give multiplication precedence over addition? Could we do it the other way around?

New look, new title

I have updated to a new WordPress theme, partly because I thought it was time for a makeover, and partly to see if it would cure some of the problems people have had commenting. In the process I decided to change the title of the blog. My recent writings have been about school mathematics generally, and I hope they are of use to teachers everywhere, whatever their standards. I will still write occasionally about the Common Core, and I will still answer questions over in the forums. I have changed the settings in the forums to allow anonymous posting for people who have trouble logging in. I may have to change that back again if it causes security problems. And, speaking of security, the site has been protected by SiteLock since last summer’s hacking, which means that you will occasionally encounter a captcha screen.

And, by the way, the url mathematicalmusings.org also points to this blog.

Truth and consequences: talking about solving equations

The language we use when we talk about solving equations can be a bit of a minefield. It seems obvious to talk about an equation such as $3x + 2 = x + 5$ as saying that $3x+2$ is equal to $x + 5$, and that’s probably a good place to start. But there is a hidden assumption in there that the equation is true. In the Illustrative Mathematics middle school curriculum coming out this month we start students out with hanger diagrams to represent such equations:

The fact that the hanger is balanced embodies the hidden assumption that the equation is true. It is helpful for explaining why you have to perform the same operation on each side when solving equations; if you take two triangles from the left side you have to take two triangles from the right side as well in order to preserve the balance. This leads to a discussion of how performing the same operation on each side of an equation preserves the truth of the equal sign.

But what happens with an equation like $3x + 2 = 3x + 5$? In this case, the hanger diagram is a physical impossibility: the right hand side will always be heavier than the left hand side. I can imagine that students who have an idea of an equation as “the left hand side is equal to the right hand side” might be confused by this situation, and think this is not a proper equation. Especially when they reduce it to $2 = 5$. Students learn to say that this means there are no solutions, but it’s hard to make sense of that response rule without understanding what’s really going on with equations.

The fact is, an equation with a variable in it is neither true nor false, because it is merely a phrase in a longer sentence, such as “If $3x + 2 = x + 5$ then $x = \frac32$.” This sentence is true, but the phrases within it are not sentences and have no inherent truth or falsity. When we perform the same operation on each side of an equation, we are not only preserving the truth of the equal sign but also preserving the consequences of the equal sign. If we use if-then language when talking about equations, then we can make sense of equations with no solutions. A sentence like “If $x$ is a number satisfying $3x + 2 = 3x + 5$ then $2 = 5$” makes perfect sense. It’s the mathematical equivalent of “If the moon is green cheese, then I’m a monkey’s uncle.” It’s a way of saying the moon is not green cheese . . . or that there is no solution to the equation.

The middle schooler’s version of if-then language might not always use the words “if” and “then.” You might say “Imagine there is a number $x$ such that $3x + 2 = x + 5$. What can you say about $x$?” Just as you say “Imagine this hanger is balanced and the green triangles weigh one gram. How much do the blue squares weigh?” I think it’s a useful approach with students to remember that equations are a matter not just of truth, but of truth and consequences.

Why is a negative times a negative a positive?

OK, I can hear the groans already. There are many contexts for answering this question and they are dubious in varying degrees because the real answer is “because I said so.” That is to say, the rule for multiplying negatives is a convention; adopted for good reasons, but a convention nonetheless. Those good reasons are mathematical: we want to make sure that when we extend multiplication and addition to negative numbers the properties of operations still apply. In particular, we want the distributive property to apply. Meditate on this:
$$
3\cdot(5 + (-5)) = 3\cdot5 + 3 \cdot (-5).
$$
The left side is really $3 \cdot 0$, so it had better be zero. So the right side had better be zero as well. The first term on the right side is 15, so the other term had better be $-15$. So $3 \cdot (-5) = -15$. We want the commutative law to hold, so we had better say $(-5)\cdot 3 = -15$ as well. Now meditate on
$$
(-5)\cdot(3 + (-3)) = (-5)\cdot 3 + (-5)\cdot(-3).
$$
The same reasoning tells us that $(-5)\cdot(-3) = 15$.

Trouble is, all this is really hard to explain to middle schoolers, so people invent contexts. One context I’ve seen has something to do with sending out bills. If you receive 5 bills for 3 dollars then you have $5 \cdot (-3) = -15$ dollars. Sending out is the opposite of receiving, so if you send out 5 bills for 3 dollars, you have $(-5)(-3)$ dollars. But once you receive payment, you have \$15. So $(-5)(-3) = 15$.

One problem with this is that you have to buy more conventions to believe it: the convention about negative amounts of money representing debt, the convention about negative receiving being kinda sorta like sending out. That’s a lot of conventions to prove something that is, as I said, a convention itself. Another problem is that all this context really shows is that $-(-3) = 3$, five times. The multiplication in this context is really just repeated addition; it doesn’t work for numbers that are not integers. You can’t send out 5.6 bills.

There is one context that I think does a better job here, and that is $\mbox{distance} = \mbox{speed} \times \mbox{time}$. This does work with non-integers, and you can make sense of all of the quantities involved as negative numbers. Let’s assume that an object is moving along the number line, and that you measure its position at different times, setting your stop watch to 0 when it passes through the origin. Negative distance is distance to the left; negative speed is speed from right to left; and negative time is time before you started measuring. (Later we use the terms displacement and velocity, but there’s no need to introduce them right away.)

So if the object is moving at $-5$ m/sec, where is it at time $-3$ seconds? Well, it’s moving from right to left and it has 3 seconds before it hits the origin, so it is 15 m to the right of the origin. So $(-5)(-3) = 15$.

Was I cheating there? Is this context subject to the same objections I made about the money context? Didn’t I just make up a whole bunch of conventions about negative distance, time, and speed? I think these conventions pass the cognitive sniff test better. They don’t seem as artificial to me. You can really make quantitative sense of negative distance, speed, and time. It feels more like the real world and less like an accountant’s convention. (No offense to accountants intended.) In a way, we have replaced the mathematician’s desire to have the properties of operations continue to hold with the physicist’s desire to have the laws of physics continue to hold.

So where is the distributive property in all of this? I think it is built into our physical intuition about this context. If I travel for 3 hours, and then for another 2 hours, I can figure out how far I have gone by just adding the times and multiplying by my speed, or I can add the distances traveled in each time period. That’s the distributive property. If you dig into the reasoning I gave for the object moving at $-5$ m/sec in the light of this common sense, questioning each claim, you end up with something not too far from the mathematical reasoning I gave earlier.

By the way, this is the approach we take in the Illustrative Mathematics middle school curriculum. Finding contexts for mathematical ideas that are faithful to the mathematics is difficult and requires real sensitivity to both the mathematics and the way students think. Our brilliant curriculum writing team is up to that challenge.

Talking about fractions, decimals, and numbers

When students first learn about fractions, we want them to learn that they are just numbers; new numbers, but numbers nonetheless, that fit into the same system as the whole numbers they are familiar with. The number line can help with this, with whole numbers and fractions sitting together, and located in essentially the same way; choose a unit (1, 1/3, 1/10) and then count off a number of those units. It also helps students understand that equivalent fractions are just different ways of writing the same number. When (finite) decimals come along, they get added to the list of representations.

The Common Core emphasizes this unity by treating decimals as just a different way of writing fractions, e.g. in 4.NF.C: “Understand decimal notation for fractions, and compare decimal fractions.” In this view, 0.3 is not a new sort of number, just a different way of writing the number 3/10.

This leads to some difficulties in the use of language, because at some points in the curriculum you do want to distinguish between decimals and fractions, for example when you ask a student to write 4/5 as a decimal or to write 0.125 as a fraction. (“You told me it’s already a fraction!” the smart student might reply.)

The IM curriculum writing team was talking about these difficulties the other day and Cathy Kessel had a useful comment:

There’s a developmental issue. When fractions are introduced, the distinction between number represented and representation is blurred, and similarly for decimals (finite, then repeating). But, when the two types of representations are seen as representing the same thing, then the thing and its representations start to separate more.

Because we want students to develop a conception of the number behind the representation, we start out saying decimals are also fractions. Later we build a negative addition to the number line and add the opposites of fractions. Once we have a robust conception of the number line, inhabited by rational numbers, we want to talk about different ways of expressing those numbers: fractions, decimals, infinite decimals, expressions involving square root symbols and exponents. So we start to distinguish between fractions and decimals, not as numbers, but as forms for expressing numbers. We initially suppress their role as forms in order to gain a robust conception of number; once they are firmly attached to that conception we can distinguish between them.

They only way to do this without giving multiple meanings to the same words would be to invent new words and be consistent in their use. This harks back to the distinction between “numeral” and “number” in the New Math, which didn’t take hold.

Ways of thinking and ways of doing

Somewhere back in days of Facebook fury about the Common Core there was a post from an outraged parent whose child had been marked wrong for something like this:
$$
6 \times 3 = 6 + 6 + 6 = 18.
$$
Apparently the child was supposed to do
$$
6 \times 3 = 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 +3 = 18
$$
because of this standard:

3.OA.A.1. Interpret products of whole numbers, e.g., interpret $5 \times 7$ as the total number of objects in 5 groups of 7 objects each. For example, describe a context in which a total number of objects can be expressed as $5 \times 7$.

The parent had every right to be upset: a correct answer is a correct answer. Comments on the post correctly pointed out that, since multiplication is commutative, it shouldn’t matter in what order the calculation interpreted the product. But hang on, I hear you ask, doesn’t that contradict 3.OA.A.1, which clearly states that $6 \times 3$ should be interpreted as 6 groups of 3?

The fundamental problem here is a confusion between ways of thinking and ways of doing. 3.OA.A.1 proposes a way of thinking about $a \times b$, as $a$ groups of $b$. In other words, it proposes a definition of multiplication. It could have proposed the other definition: $a \times b$ is $b$ groups of $a$. The choice is arbitrary, so why make it? Well, there’s an interesting discovery to me made here: the two definitions are equivalent. That’s how you prove that multiplication is indeed commutative. It’s not obvious that $a$ groups of $b$ things each amounts to the same number of things as $b$ groups of $a$ things each. At least, not until you prove it, for example by arranging the things into an array:

You can see this as 3 groups of 6 by looking at the rows,

and as 6 groups of 3 things each by looking at the columns,

Since it’s the same number things no matter how you look at it, and using our definition of multiplication, we see that $3 \times 6 = 6 \times 3$. (We leave it as an exercise to the reader to generalize this proof.)

None of this dictates the way of doing $6 \times 3$, that is, the method of computing it. In fact, it expands the possibilities, including deciding to work with the more efficient $3 \times 6$, as this child did. The way of thinking does not constrain the way of doing. If you want to test whether a child understands 3.OA.A.1, you will have to come up with a different task than computation of a product. There are some good ideas from Student Achievement Partners here.

Misconceptions about Multiple Methods

You may have noticed that I am back to publishing regular blog posts! My goal for now is a blog post every second Wednesday. I am now also trying to answer forum questions promptly. I want to thank the readers who took up the slack for the last year and a half in answering questions in the forums. In particular, I’d like to call out abieniek, Alexei Kassymov, and Lane Walker, whose answers were always spot on.

Now to the topic of this post. There has been a lot of talk since the standards came out about what they say about multiple methods for arithmetic operations, and I’d like to clear up a couple of points.

First, the standards do encourage that students have access to multiple methods as they learn to add, subtract, multiply and divide. But this does not mean that you have to solve every problem in multiple ways. Having different methods available is like having different means of transportation available to get to work; flexibility is good, but it doesn’t mean you have to go to school by car, then by bus, then walk, then bike—every single day! The point of having multiple methods available is to encourage students to think strategically about what might be the best method for a given problem, not force them to solve every problem four times.

Second, the different methods are not unrelated; they form a progression, with the ultimate goal being the standard algorithm. For example, when students are first learning to multiply two digit numbers, they might use a rectangle to represent a product such as $42 \times 71$.

This shows the fundamental role of the distributive property in multiplying multi-digit numbers. You have to multiply each base ten component into each other one. Indeed, the same rectangle representation provides a visual proof of the distributive property itself.

At some later point students might just start writing down all the partial products, without using the rectangle to derive them.

Note the correspondence between the rectangle method and the partial product method, indicated by the colors. The first row of the rectangle and shows all the products by the 2 in 42 (in red); the second row shows all the products by the 40 (in blue). The products in the partial product method are grouped in the same way. There are many ways you can order the partial products, but if you group them as I have here, going from right to left in each two-digit number, as in the standard algorithm, you make an amazing discovery: you can add up all the partial products in each group (blue group or red group) in your head as you go along. That’s because, in each case, adding the 2 to the 140 or the 40 to the 2800, there are enough zeroes in the second addend to accommodate the first, so it is easy to write down the sum right away, without writing the addends separately.

OK, so it’s not always quite this easy, because every now and then you will have to keep in mind a bundled unit from the previous step (aka carrying), but you will never have to remember that for more than one step at a time, because each bundled unit gets used up at the next step. So if you invent a notation for remembering the bundled unit (what we used to call “little 1 in the corner” when I was growing up) then you can still avoid writing down all the partial products, and just compute the sum within each group as you go along. You have just created the standard algorithm.

The different methods are not isolated different ways of doing the same thing; they are steps towards fluency with the standard algorithm, fluency that is not fragile because it is supported by understanding.