Tag Archives: proofs

Proofs in Geometry - The Modification Continues...

Two statements of interest to me:

  • I get more consistent daily hits on my blog for teaching geometry proofs than anything else. Shiver.
  • Dan Meyer's recent post on proofs in Geometry gets to the heart of what bothers me about teaching proofs at all. Double shiver.

These statements have made me think about my approach in doing proofs with students in my 9th grade course, which has previously been a geometry course, but is morphing into something slightly different in anticipation of our move to the IB program. I like the concept of teaching proofs because I force students to confront the idea that there's a difference between things they know must be true, might be true, and will never be true. I started the unit asking the class the following questions:

  • Will the sun rise tomorrow?
  • Will student A always be older than her younger sister?
  • Will the boys volleyball team win the tournament this weekend>

The clear difference between these questions was also clear to my students. The word 'obviously' came up at least once, as expected.

The idea of proving something that is obvious is certainly an exercise of questionable purpose, mostly because it confines student thinking in the mould of classroom mathematics. As geometry teachers, we do this as a scaffold to help students learn to write proofs of concepts that are not so obvious. The downside is the inherent lack of perplexity in this process, as Dan points out in his post. The rules of math that students routinely apply to solve textbook or routine problems already fit in this 'obvious' category either from tradition ('I've done this since, like, forever') or from obedience ('My teacher/textbook says this is true, and that's good enough for me.')

I usually go to Geogebra to have students discover certain properties to be true, or give a quick numerical example showing why two angles supplementary to the same angle are congruent. They get this, but have a sense of detachment when I then ask them to prove it using the properties we reviewed in previous lessons. It seems to be very much related to what Kate Nowak pointed out in her comment to Dan's post. Geometry software or numerical examples show something to be so obvious that proof isn't necessary, so why circle back to then use the rules of mathematics to prove it to be true?

I had an idea this afternoon that I plan to try tomorrow to close this gap.
I wrote earlier about using spreadsheets with students to take some of the abstraction out of translating algebraic expressions. Making calculations with variables in the way a spreadsheet does shows very clearly the concept of variables, and also doing arithmetic with them. My idea here is to use a spreadsheet this way:

Screen Shot 2013-11-10 at 5.35.43 PM

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My students know that they should be able to change what is in the black cells, and enter formulas in the red cells so that they change based on what is in the black cells only. In doing this, they will be using their algebraic rules and geometric definitions to complete a formula. This hits the concrete examples I mentioned above - a 25 degree angle complementary to an angle will always be congruent to a 25 degree angle complementary to that same angle. It also uses the properties (definition of a complementary angle, subtraction property of equality, definition of congruence) to suggest the relationship between those angles using the language and structure of proof, which comes next in class.

Here is the spreadsheet file I've put together:
02 - SPR - Congruent Angles

I plan to have them complete the empty cells in this spreadsheet and then move on to filling in some reasons for steps of more formal proofs of these theorems afterwards, as I have done previously. I'd like to think that doing this will make it a little more clear how the observations students have relate to the properties they then use to prove the theorems.

I'd love you to hack away at my idea with feedback in the comments.

First day of Geometry proofs - Refining my process

Last year, I figured out about a week or two after the first introduction to proofs in Geometry last year that I should have started with a more clear connection to the ideas we had been working on in the classes before. We did a progression of logical statements, conditional statements, working on biconditionals as definitions, and then the laws of detachment and syllogism. I realized then that I never made strong references to these concepts and how they all fit together - I just hoped that the students would see how the proofs were built out of these ideas without formally telling them as such.

This year I was much more explicit in how the ideas fit together, particularly by showing a paragraph proof as a series of conditional statements with true hypotheses. I was really happy with the results. I created two videos to use as part of the instruction:

Students watched the video and then worked on identifying the properties of equality and congruence being applied in a few different situations, and completing statements given that a particular property is being applied. This led to some great conversations about subtle differences between the transitive property of equality and the substitution property of equality. ('If a = 5 and b = 5, then a = b' is the latter, not the former. This assumes only one property is being applied at a time, of course.)

Once I was satisfied with their progress, I sent them on to watch this video:

Some students immediately took the equation, solved it, and said they were done. This led to more good discussions about the purpose of this lesson. We already knew how to solve equations - what was new this time was justifying each step using a property. It was an opportunity to push these students to then focus on what was happening in each step and not so much on the algebra that they did quickly. Once I was convinced that they did understand what was going on in each step of the video, I had them move to either some problems with the steps written out, missing only the justifications (for weaker students), and for others, full algebraic problems that they do from start to finish.

The thing I did differently here (and which was made easier by the magic of video) is emphasizing that the different steps in a proof are really all either conditional statements, statements of fact (the given information), and possibly steps of arithmetic simplification. Each line should be connected to the previous one in the form of a conditional statement. I have said it in the past, but never explicitly written it out each time so that the students think of it this way.

The whole point of doing things this way is so that students are not introduced to two concepts simultaneously: writing steps in a proof, and proving a statement deductively from scratch. Having a good sense of algebra, this lesson focused on introducing students to the process first. Next time we will move on to actually finding and proving theorems about line segments, with the idea that they already have a basic sense for how different thoughts can be linked together logically in a proof. I am hoping that being this deliberate will pay off - this was definitely the smoothest this lesson has ever gone for me.

Students #flipping class presentations through making videos

Those of you that know the way I usually teach probably also know that projects are not in my comfort zone. I always feel they need to be well defined in such a way to make it so that the mathematical content is the focus, and NOT necessarily about how good it looks, the "flashy factor", or whether it is appropriately stapled. As a result, I often avoid them like the plague. The activities we do in class are usually student centered and involve  a lot of student interaction, and occasionally (much to my dismay) are open ended problems to be solved.

Done well, a good project (and rubric) also involves a good amount of focused interaction between students about the mathematical content. I don't like asking students to make presentations either - what often results is a Powerpoint and students awkwardly gesturing at projected images of text that they then read to the group in front of them. In class, I openly mock adults who do this to my students - I keep the promise that I will never ask them to read to me and their peers standing at the front of the room. Presentation skills are important, don't get me wrong, but I don't see educational gold in the process, or get all tingly about 'real-world skill development' from assigning in-class presentations. They instill fear in the hearts of many students (especially those that are students of ESOL) and require  tolerance from the rest of the class and involved adults to sit through watching them, and require class time in order to 'make' students watch them.

I'm also not convinced they actually learn content by creating them. Take a bunch of information found on Wikipedia or from Google, put it on a number of slides, and read it slowly until your time is up. Where is the synthesis? Where is the real world application of an idea that the student did? What new information is the student generating? If there's very little substantive answer to those questions, it's not worth it. It's no wonder why they go the Powerpoint slide route either - it's generally what they see adults doing when they present something.

In short, I don't like asking students to do something that even adults don't typically do well, and even then without the self-esteem and image issues that teenagers have.

All of that said, I really liked seeing a presentation (a good one, mind you) from Kelly Grogan (@KellyEd121) at the Learning 2.011 conference in Shanghai this past September. She has her students combine written work, digital media, audio, and video into digital documents that can be easily shared with each other and with her as their teacher. The additional dimension of hearing the student talking about his/her work and understanding is a really powerful one. It is but one distilled aspect of what we want students to get out of the projects we assign.

The fact that it isn't live also takes away a lot of the pressure to get it all right in one take. It also takes advantage of the asynchronous capability that technology affords us - I can watch a student's product at home or on my iPad at night, as can the other students. I like how it uses the idea of the flipped classroom to change the idea of student presentations. Students present their understanding or work through video that can be watched at home,  and then the content can be discussed or used in class the next day.

It was with all of this in mind that I decided to assign the project described here:

http://wiki.hischina.org/groups/gealgerobophysiculus/wiki/57f0c/Unit_5__Living_Proof_Video_Project.html

The proofs were listed on a handout given in class, and students in groups of two chose which proof they wanted to do. Most students submitted their videos today. I'm pretty pleased with how they ran with the idea and made it their own. Some quick notes:

  • The mathematical content is the focus, and the students understood that from the beginning. While the math isn't perfect in every video, the enthusiasm the students had for putting these together was pretty awesome to watch. There's no denying that enthusiasm as a tool for helping students learn - this is a major plus for project based assignments.
  • Some students that rarely volunteer to speak in class have their personalities and voices all over these. I love this.

My plan to hold students accountable for watching these is to have variations of them on the unit test in a couple weeks. I don't have to force the students to watch them though - they had almost all shared them before they were due.

Yes, you heard that right. They had almost all shared their work with each other and talked about it before getting to class. I sometimes have to force this to happen during class, but this assignment encouraged them to do it on their own. Now that's cool.

I have ideas for tweaking it for next time, but I really liked what came out of this. I've been hurt(stung?)  by projects before - giving grades that meet the rubric for the project, but don't actually result in a grade that indicates student learning.

I can see how this concept could really change things though. There's no denying that the work these students produced is authentic to them, and requires engagement with the content. Isn't that what we ultimately want students to know how to do when they leave our classroom?

Teaching Proofs in Geometry - What I do.

This is the second year that I've had a standard geometry class to teach. The other times when I've taught some of the same topics, it has been in the context of integrated curricula, so there wasn't too much emphasis on proof. When the time came last year to decide how teaching proofs fit into my overall teaching philosophy, it was a new concept. I've seen some pretty amazing teachers have great success in teaching it to students who subsequently are able to score very highly on standardized exams. I'm in the fortunate position of not having to align my proof teaching to the format on an exam. As a result, I've been able to fit what I see as the power of proof-writing to the needs and skills of my students in the bigger context of getting them to think logically and communicate their ideas.

As a result, my general feeling about writing proofs is as follows:

  • Memorizing theorems by their number in the textbook is less important than being able to communicate what they say.

I'll accept 'vertical angles theorem' but fully expect my students to be able to draw me a quick diagram to show me what the theorem really says. This is especially important for international school students who may move away to a new math classroom in another part of the world in which 'Theorem 2-3' has no meaning. I won't ask students to state a theorem word for word on an assessment either, but they must know the hypothesis and conclusion well enough to know when they can apply it to justify a step in their proofs.

  • Being clear about notation and clear connections between steps in proofs is important.

Since the focus of my geometry class is clear communication, correct use of notation is important. If angle A and angle B are congruent, and the measures of these angles are then used in a subsequent step of the proof, it needs to be stated that the measures of angle A and measures of angle B are congruent equal. I'm not going to fail a student for using incorrect notation in a proof if the rest of the logic is sound, but a student will not receive a perfect score either if he/she uses congruent angles interchangeably with their measures.

  • Struggling and getting feedback from others is the key to learning to do this correctly.

I don't want my students memorizing proofs. I want them to understand how logic and theorems applied step by step can prove statements to be true. Human interaction is key to seeing whether a statement is logical or not - I like taking the 'make-it-better' approach with students. If a student says angle A and angle B are congruent, and that statement is not given information, then there needs to be some logical statement to justify it. In all likelihood, there is another person in the classroom that can help provide that missing information , and it won't necessarily be me. As I wrote in a previous post, it was tough letting the students struggle with proofs in the beginning, but they helped each other beautifully to fill in the gaps in their understanding. This makes it hard for students that are used to being able to see a thousand examples and get it, but since that isn't my intent for this course, I'm fine with that.

My progression for teaching proofs starts with giving the students a chance to investigate a concept and predict a theorem using Geogebra or a pencil and paper sketch. I like using Geogebra for this purpose because it instantly lets students check whether a property is true for many different configurations of the geometrical objects.

As an example, the diagram at right is one similar to what my students made during a recent class. The students see that some angles are congruent and that others are supplementary. They can make a conjecture about them always being congruent after moving the points around and seeing that their measures are always equal. This grounds the idea of writing a proof in the idea that they know that if parallel lines are cut by a transversal, then alternate exterior angles are congruent. There's no failing in this if the activity has been designed correctly - students will observe a pattern.

The work of writing the proof doesn't start here - usually some work needs to be done to get a complete conditional statement to be used as a theorem. When students suggest hypotheses for the statement, and it isn't as complete as it needs to be, I (or even better, other students) play devil's advocate and construct diagrams that might serve as counterexamples for the entire statement NOT to be true. Students might suggest 'if two lines are intersected by a third line, then alternate exterior angles are the same'. If I've done my job correctly, students will (and at this point are) catching each other on using congruent rather than the same, and not saying that angles are equal. This is a great spot for the students that love catching mistakes (though often don't catch their own). Until students are comfortable writing the theorems using precise and correct mathematical language based on their observations, writing the proofs themselves is a huge challenge.

I balance the above activities with another introductory step in writing proofs. I'll provide the statements in order for the proof and ask students to provide the reasons. This works well because students seem to see coming up with the statements as the tough part, and the reasons come from a menu of properties and theorems that we've put together previously in class. I don't like doing too much of this as it doesn't require as much social interaction aside from "is this the right reason?" from students as the rest of proof writing.

The final step to writing proofs comes in the form of returning to a diagram like that above. If students are proving the statement "if parallel lines in a plane are cut by a transversal, then alternate exterior angles are congruent", I expect them to draw a diagram (on paper or on Geogebra) showing parallel lines cut by a transversal. I tell them to pick an exterior angle and give it/find its measure. Then they need to go step by step and find the other measures of the angles using only theorems we know, and NOT using the statement we are trying to prove. (We call this the 'cheap' way.) My way of prompting this development is by asking questions. If a student is sitting and staring at angle 3 in the diagram, I can ask about another angle he/she knows is congruent to that angle. A student will invariable state a correct angle just from having a correct diagram, but this is the important part: the student MUST be able to identify in words what theorem/postulate allows the student to say that the other angle is congruent, either verbally or in writing.

The key thing to show students at this point is that there are MANY ways to make this process happen. Some will see vertical angles right away, and say that angle 3 is congruent to angle 2 because of the vertical angles theorem. This then leads to seeing that angle 2 is congruent to angle 1 by the corresponding angle postulate, and then the final step of using transitivity to prove the theorem. Some students will jump from angle 3 to angle 2 (vertical angles theorem), then angle 2 to angle 4 (alternate interior angles theorem), then angle 4 to angle 1 (vertical angles theorem again). Having students share at this point the many ways of doing this is crucial - letting them justify which angles are congruent using concrete values for the angles, and justifying each step with another theorem, definition, or postulate is the important part. Once they have done this, I let them work together to write the full proof using the concrete road map. They don't get it right the first time, but having the real numbers as an example grounds the abstraction of the idea of proof enough for students to see how the proof comes together.

The weaker students in the group need one extra step sometimes. I let them fill in all of the angles in the diagram first using what they know - this part, they tend to be pretty good at, and I don't flinch when they use the calculator to do the arithmetic since some need that to be successful. Then we hop from angle to angle and the student must explain using the correct vocabulary why the angles are congruent or supplementary. In keeping this as an exercise in concrete numbers, I've had some success in these students (and the ESOL students) using the correct vocabulary, even if they are unable to write the proof completely on their own.

I started to see the dividends of this progression this week, and I am really pleased to see how far they have come in being able to justify their statements. The only thing we did need to work on was how to structure an answer to questions that ask students to make a conclusion based on given information and the theorems they know. This was in response to using converses of the parallel line theorems to show that given lines are parallel. To help them with this process, I gave them this frame and set of examples:

I was very impressed with how this improved the responses of all students in the class. We had some great conversations about the content of student conclusions using this format. In diagram (b), two students had different conclusions about why lines CF and HA are parallel, and there was some really great student-led discussion in explaining why they were both correct. I forced myself to listen and let their thinking guide this discussion, and I was really happy with how it worked.

This year's group still is not super thrilled about having to write proofs, but they are not showing the outright hatred that the last group was showing at this point. I have been emphasizing the move from concrete to abstract much more with this group, as well as showing that the proof is really a logical next-step from reasoning how two angles with definite measures relate to each other in a diagram.  If nothing else, students are already better communicators of their math thinking in comparison to the first day of class when there was plenty of wild gesturing and pointing to 'that thing, yeah' on the whiteboard. Continuing to develop this is, I believe the real goal of a geometry class and not the memorization of theorems. My next step is to include the statement writing process as the first step in solving an algebraic problem. Many students are still throwing the dice and either setting algebraic expressions equal to each other, or adding them together and setting them equal to 180 because that's what they did in their other classes. I am trying, trying, trying to get them out of this habit.

I hope that in sharing my process, others might get ideas on how to either make a certain geometry teacher better (me) or to enhance what is already going on in other classrooms. If any readers have suggestions on how to improve this as time goes forward, I am most thankful for any and all advice you can provide.