Study an example, see the world

I’ve been a math teacher in New York City since 2010, a few months after I graduated from college. It’s the only job I’ve ever had, besides for little things over the summer when I was a teen. (In order: babysitter, camp counselor, Pepsi vendor at Wrigley Field, tutor. All kind of relevant to teaching, come to think of it.)

Though I teach math, math didn’t feel easy for me as a student. It was never where I shined. An exception was geometry, with its heavy emphasis on proof. Proof felt natural for me in a way that algebra didn’t.

When I began teaching, I realized that for many students the situation is reversed — it’s proof that feels unnatural and cumbersome. Writing a proof involves combining statements in ways that seemed to mystify many students. This was especially true early in my career.

After a few years of hitting my head against the wall, I started to understand what made this such a difficult skill to teach. Proof is the closest that mathematics comes to writing, and writing itself is impossible without reading. How can a student who has never read an essay possibly write one? I concluded that my students needed to read more proofs.

It took me a few more years to understand how exactly to pull this off in class. My big frustration was that my students wouldn’t devote enough attention to the proof examples I shared. I would distribute a completed proof and ask the class to read it with care. Very often, it seemed that they missed the whole point of the proof. They couldn’t read it carefully yet — they didn’t know how.

Now, things go better when I share proofs in class. One big difference is I have a much better understanding of all the subtle conceptual understandings that go into a proof, many which were invisible to me at first. (In teaching, it can be trouble when a topic comes naturally to you.) There are many aspects of a proof that I need to help them uncover.

Besides for a better understanding of the subtleties of proof, I’ve learned to structure my activities in sturdier ways. I’ve learned to design these activities so that they have three parts:

  • The proof example
  • Comprehension questions about the example
  • Proof-writing practice, with the example as a model

I didn’t come to this structure on my own, by the way. I came to it through reading about Cognitive Load Theory (where these are sometimes called “example-problem pairs”) and especially from seeing it in some especially well-designed curricular materials:

Screenshot 2017-11-30 at 6.49.21 PM.png

Also:

Screenshot 2017-11-30 at 6.50.45 PM.png

 

(In fact, I didn’t really understand how to make my own example activities until I saw many models in these curricular materials. I needed examples, myself.)

So, for instance, I created this proof example for my students this year:

DM8ANAWWsAACjSC.jpgLooking back, the example isn’t perfect. It ended up being a bit visually crowded, and it might have been better to eliminate some of the letter-abbreviations. In class, I actually covered up each stage of the proof to focus their attention on each part.

In any event, this activity shows a lot of what I’ve learned about teaching proof. I knew I wanted to make explicit the complicated two-stage structure of some congruence arguments, so I worked hard to create a pretty clear example for my students. I then called on students to answer a trio of analysis questions about the proof — there’s a lot to notice, and students don’t yet know how to notice the underlying structure of this kind of proof all on their own. Finally, I ask students to use what they’ve noticed on a related pair of problems, so that students see that there’s something here that’s generalizable to many different kinds of diagrams.

Even when my proof activities aren’t structured so rigidly, I try to include variety and a chance to practice. Here is a simpler activity, but I still call for students to do a bit of proof-completion in the second prompt:

DM8ANArXkAItunW.jpgSometimes when I talk to other teachers about examples, they tell me they’re worried that kids will just try to unthinkingly copy the model. I do know what they mean, but it’s not what I see with my kids. I think that part of the reason is that I reserve example-analysis for when I worry that the math is going to be difficult, even overwhelming for many students. There is certainly a way to misuse these activities, and perhaps if I used these sorts of tasks on less complex material I would see unthinking imitation.

One of my jobs is to help students see things that they can’t yet see — things like the logical structure of a good mathematical argument, or the way just a tiny bit of information about a shape can guarantee a whole lot more. When things don’t come naturally to my students, what I’m learning to do is to design an activity that opens up a little window into the mathematics so they can learn to see new things.

Addendum (1/6/18): I just came across this lovely line from Paul Halmos:

A good stack of examples, as large as possible, is indispensable for a thorough understanding of any concept, and when I want to learn something new, I make it my first job to build one.

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