Sunday, October 23, 2011

Presenting proofs 2 etc.

I applaud P.J. for working through the proof of Brahmagupta's formula with his advanced students, even though it was perhaps not in line with what we call "best practice," as many of his students may not have understood.

First and foremost, one of the most important things we can do for our students is to share our enthusiasm for mathematics, perhaps even mathematics they do not at this point completely understand. Knowing P.J. as I do, I'll bet his students were as excited by his excitement as they were by the beautiful proof he shared with them. I am sure he did not just stand at the board with his back to them writing. Probably didn't even use a board.

Secondly, it is critical that every student see some beautiful and significant mathematics. Part of being educated is understanding where knowledge comes from. How is it that we come to know the things we know? How did we come to think this way? How did anyone ever think of that?


Seeing a beautiful--if complex--proof is as important to an education as seeing a complicated, if not completely understood painting, perhaps a Picasso, or a DeKooning. Seeing a beautiful proof is as important as hearing music written by Schoenberg or played by Charlie Parker or Ornette Coleman, or attending a play by Beckett or Shakespeare. The proof or the painting or the music or the play may not seem beautiful the first several times we encounter it, but we are aware that creativity and beauty are present, and sometimes it takes us work and time to take it all in. When the complex, beautiful thing does make sense to us, we are changed. That is a part of education. Not the part that will necessarily make a lot of money, certainly not a part that will improve our test scores on a high-stakes test, but a part that will improve the quality of our lives.

Mathematics is overflowing with creative ideas and contributions from creative people. People like Cantor, Godel, Gauss, and Newton had some amazing ideas and made some remarkable contributions. Mathematics teachers have a responsibility to make our students aware of the inventive nature of mathematics, and it is easiest to do so if we share the problems and proofs we love. I used to teach a unit on non-Euclidean geometry just because I liked the ideas so much. A few of my students grasped what I was telling them and studied it further. I suspect others did much later in their lives, and I just have never heard.

I recall my Modern Algebra professor, Dr. Pilgrim, comparing a proof he had just showed us to a Gail Sayers run he has witnessed the Sunday before during a Bear's victory. His comment stayed with me and made me take a harder look at proofs. As it happens, I have made a list of my favorite mathematics. In the top ten, seven are proofs. I didn't always feel that way, but then I didn't always love mathematics the way I love it now. Mathematics has clearly made my life more interesting and the opportunity to share that with other people has been even better.

I rarely share those proofs with all of my students because I know that the timing has to be right in order to have in impact. Many students shut down as soon as they see a proof coming. It is such a shame that they are missing out on such enjoyment. But then a lot of people don't listen to jazz, classical music, go to art museums or serious plays either. I find all of those interesting and fulfilling. I am sure there are things I am missing that are equally important, but no one ever hooked me on them. Such is the way of the world. All I can do—and I must do it—is to try to share with others those things that bring me such joy and hope some of it will rub off, so we can share it together, and so they can keep it going.

This weekend, I attended the Illinois Council of Mathematics Teacher's annual conference. One session I attended was organized by Doug ORourke, a good friend of PJ's and of mine. Coincidentally, part of what he offered was an opportunity to investigate Hero's formula and Brahmagupta's formula in a new and different way. He proposed several versions of what could have been the formula and challenged us to find a way to explain why each variation of the formula could not be correct. The discussion was stimulating and resembled the discussion that comes before a proof and rarely happens in any math class. He then took Brahmagupta, had us enter it into a CAS calculator and then enter all sorts of numbers, to see what would happen. The overriding theme was Plausibility. By this he meant to look at special cases, impossible cases. What a brilliant way to spend an hour. Thanks Doug and I shall take this with me.

Friday evening was devoted to awards. The outstanding secondary School teacher award went to Natalie Jakucyn, truly a giant among us. In her acceptance speech, she thanked her high school math teacher, a nun who held her students to very high standards. Natalie recalled the day Sister put a long proof on the board. When she was done, the Sister wrote, "QED," went the back of the room, and said "Isn't that beautiful?" It was then that Natalie decided to become a math teacher!

So, thanks again, P.J., for taking the time out from the usual hands-on, engaging, student-discovery type of lesson that is typical of your classes and inspiring at least a few of your students by showing them a proof. Do it again. No one should graduate from high school without seeing Euclid's proof that there are infinitely many primes. It is certainly a proof that is in "The Book." and has inspired many a fledgling mathematician. And an important part of excellent teaching is inspiration.