Friday, February 21, 2014

Making More Sense

     This is my first time teaching algebra 2. I have two goals: make sure my students master and enhance their algebra 1 skills, and have the students see/understand the material in a new way. So far, its early in the semester and we haven't gotten into anything too deep, but yesterday we started a familiar (but often over-complicated) topic, arithmetic sequences.
     "Given a sequence 4, 10, 16, 22, 28, ..., a) Find the next three terms, b) Find the 87th term, c) Find the sum of the first 26 terms." If you see this problem in a textbook, there is a good chance it is preceded by explicit and recursive formulas with some notation that often confuses students. Seeing an and an-1 is not the easiest thing to explain, nor is it overly easy for students to retain. It is not often used, certainly not consistently throughout math topics, and is usually only associated with this topic of sequences and series, geometric and arithmetic. When there is a great chance that the above is going to happen for my students, is there a way to teach this so that they will understand it and connect it to what we've previously done, or am I doomed to teach this tough notation and risk it getting in the way of their learning? Luckily I work with someone who thinks outside the box on nearly everything and has an incredible gift for showing students how patterns exist within math.
     We started the course by having students find linear functions with only a table of values. They are able to find the change in y and change in x, and from their develop the linear relationship. So instead of teaching arithmetic sequences in terms of explicit and recursive formulas, we related it to a skill our students already have.
     Why not put the sequence in a table of values and have our students come up with the 'explicit formula' themselves? Is an arithmetic sequence not linear, always? Since they can see there is a common difference, a rate of change if you will, why not have them evaluate sequences in the same way they evaluated linear functions? Instead of an notation we can simply redefine x and y in the context of the problem. For our purposes, x will represent the term number and y the term itself. Done. Arithmetic sequences have just been taught in 10-15 minutes with a full understanding from my students. What about the 'recursive formula' you say? Do you see that common difference (aka slope) you just came up with kids? Continue adding that and you have your recursive formula. No confusing an-1 notation, just sense-making within the material.

     I've never taught this topic before this semester, but teaching it this way has made immediate sense with my students. They like it, they get it, and they are good at it. When I see other students in our building that are learning it in a traditional textbook sense, they are confused and constantly asking questions as to what is going on. The notation is making them lost and keeping them from seeing what's going on. When I present it to them like this, light bulbs go off and they wonder why they didn't notice this relationship before. This has quickly become a topic a enjoy teaching because it is now something that is easily understandable. We haven't gotten to geometric sequences yet, but you can bet I'll be teaching it in a very similar matter, in the context of finding an exponential equation from a table. I expect the same kind of success when I get there, assuming I'm able to teach them the table portion of exponentials effectively.
     But what about the sum of n terms? Well, so far I've taught it just by developing the formula; showing that the first and last terms, second and second last terms, etc. all add to the same value and you have n/2 of those sums (with a little more exploration and detail that that). But, I could also follow a similar path as above and have my students generate a table with y being the cumulative totals for the terms x and below. I could teach my students how to find a quadratic equation from a table by using the second differences and they could go from there. I intend on making this connection once I start quadratics, but we're still in linear land. We'll get there.
     I'm all about teaching math in a way that makes sense to students, but doesn't sacrifice the meaning and understanding of the material. I don't want my students to get bogged down by notation and formulas. I want them to see math for what it truly is, a study of patterns. I want them to make connections to previous material that they've learned and see how it all connects. Very few textbooks do this, and I'm finding that I'm learning more ways to do this through talking to other math teachers and exploring the math myself from scratch (which I need to do more of).
     By the way, it also helped a great deal that I started teaching this topic by using Dan Meyer's triangle toothpick problem. I imagine providing a great context for the lesson helped tremendously with the engagement process from the students. I also continued and developed the concept with the help of Fawn Nguyen's visual patterns. A many thanks goes out to these great educators for creating and sharing these resources with the MTBoS.

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