Proof and Consequences

A conversation was taking place over at Dan Meyer’s Blog (http://blog.mrmeyer.com/?p=17964) about proofs, which is a topic that I find myself faced with about this time every year.

This isn’t a new conundrum for me. I’ve been working for while now trying to make this idea of proof, which, when compared to the typical form of textbook Algebra I should be an easier sell. But it just isn’t.

Here are some discussions of my previous attempts to sell it. Posts from Nov 2, 2012, Nov 16, 2012, Dec 7. 2012 are a few examples of my thoughts from around a year ago when geometry hit this place last year.

The problem I have is that the academic norms seem to prefer deductive reasoning to inductive and use of the theorem names. Those two things seem important to decide on before starting the journey of proof. If you are going to prefer deductive measurements, it rules out using measurements in proofs and it requires a lot more formal geometric language.

The problem that I see is that to rule out measurements (at least from the very beginning) and to strongly increase the formal geometric language in a way that makes deductive proofs possible from the very introduction of proofs creates… well… what Christopher Danielson is quoted as saying in Meyer’s post… “one of the most lifeless topics in all of mathematics.”

In order to breathe life into the topic, from the experience I’ve had, you need to let students engage in ways that make sense to them at first. The target to start the process is simply to get them comfortable with the idea of designing a functional persuasive argument about a mathematical situation. This requires recognizing that they need to start with a clearly stated claim (preferably something that is provable) and then start supporting it.

I find it helpful to let them pull measurements from pictures first and use those in the proof. The idea of comparing two things by length and NOT measuring them to get the length seems to a lot of kids like we are making the math difficult simply because we want it to be difficult. If they sense there is an easier way to solve a problem, then the explanation for why that method is against the rules had better be very strong, or else buy-in is going to suffer some pretty heavy causalities.

Once they get the hang of making an argument, then we can start by having discussions about what kinds of evidence are more compelling than others. This is usually where the students can figure out for themselves that each piece of information needs its own bit of mathematical support.

Next we can start deliberately exposing the students to different ways of proving similar situations. Triangle congruence seems to be a popular choice. We can have conversations about proving a rigid motion or proving pairs of sides and angles. Eventually certain kinds of explanations become more and more cumbersome. For example, using definition of congruent triangles to prove that two triangles are congruent as shown here:

Do we really need to keep going to find the three pairs of congruent angles?

Do we really need to keep going to find the three pairs of congruent angles?

Then, we can start pushing into shortcut methods. Mostly because those angles are going to be somewhat tricky to find (and why do more work than you need to… the students DEFINITELY identify with that.)

By using this method, I am trying to create what I’ve heard Meyer call “an intellectual need” for additional methods to prove this claim. (Keyword: trying… not sure how successful it is, but I’m trying.)

Then, that transitions fairly smoothly into stuff like this:

2013-10-28 08.28.32

… where we standardize the side lengths of two different triangles and see how many different triangles we can make and in what ways they are different.

Now, the tougher question is whether or not you allow the class consensus following the “Straw Triangle Activity” (which was a gem that came out of Holt Geometry, Chapter 3) to count as proof of the SSS theorem. In an academic sense, now we should “formally prove” SSS theorem. To most of the students, it’s settled. Three sides paired up means the triangles are congruent. What are we risking by avoiding the formal SSS proof? Do we risk giving the impression that straws and string are formal mathematical tools? But wait… aren’t they? What do we risk by doing the formal SSS proof? Do we risk our precious classroom energy by running them through an exercise there isn’t a lot of authentic need for right now?

Am I able to say that this is the definite recipe for breathing life into geometry proofs? Not even close. I am sure there are students who are completely uninspired by this. I can say using anecdotal evidence that engagement seems significantly and satisfyingly higher then when we used to run deductive two-column proofs at students from the very beginning.

But, we’ll have to see what the consequences are as we keep going.

180-Degree Stars

Here’s another clip by Dr. Tanton. This clip proves that any 5-pointed star will have interior angles whose angles sum to 180-degrees.

As you watch this video, make sure to take special note of the method that gets used to prove this conjecture. Is it inductive? Is it deductive?

This is a great example of someone “proving” a statement without seeming like he is “doing a proof.”

For the record, I also like his statement regarding the basic geometric angle sums: 180 and 360. Listen for that.

Two Pancakes Theorem

Of all of the things that frustrate my students in geometry class, theorems and proofs are clearly the top two. This feeling is quite understandable, too. I think that students have a hard time making sense of the stuff I am asking them to prove AND I think that student have a hard time making sense of the method I am asking them to use to prove that stuff.

Enter Dr. James Tanton, who seems to have more fun doing math than most of my students would even think was possible. This video here presents a theorem called the Two Pancake Theorem (I have also seen it called the Ham Sandwich Theorem) along with a proof to support the theorem.

This video impressed me for a couple of reasons. First of all, there is nothing abstract about a pancake… and really… as you watch the video, don’t let yourself get caught up in the mathy-ness of it. Think about pancakes! Also, the proof is very approachable and makes use of excellent deductive reasoning without being overbearing.

Seriously, it is a proof about cutting pancakes in half!

Of course, the theorem does have some more serious applications than pancakes or ham sandwiches (regression lines and data analysis, for example), but that doesn’t mean that it takes an applied mathematician to have some fun with cutting some pancakes in half.