Monday, December 26, 2016

On Famous Things

A quip from Stack Exchange back in 2014 that still fills me with glee on a daily basis:

A poster asks how to convince other people when he's developed an as-yet ignored, revolutionary, world-beating result...
e.g., you solve the P vs. NP problem or any other well known open problem.
 Pete L. Clark writes as part of his response:
 It's like saying "i.e., he found the Holy Grail or some other famous cup". 

 More gifts of wisdom at Stack Exchange.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Michigan State Drops Algebra Requirement

This summer, Michigan State announced that they will drop college algebra as a general-education requirement, replacing it with quantitative-literacy classes:
Michigan State University has revised its general-education math requirement so that algebra is no longer required of all students. The revision reflects an increasing view on college campuses that there is no one-size-fits-all math curriculum -- and that math is often best studied in connection with everyday life...

Now, students can fulfill the requirement by taking two quantitative literacy courses that place math in a real-world context. They also still have the option of taking algebra along with another math course of their choice -- whether a quantitative-literacy course or a more traditional course like trigonometry.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Observed Belief That 1/2 = 1.2

Last week in both of my two college algebra sections, there came a moment when we had to graph an intercept of x = 1/2. I asked, "One-half is between what two whole numbers?" Response: "Between 1 and 2." I asked the class in general for confirmation: "Is that right? One-half is between 1 and 2, yes?" And the entirety of the class -- in both sections, separated by one hour -- nodded and agreed that it was. (Exception: One student who was previously educated in Russia.)

Now, this may seem wildly inexplicable, and it took me a number of years to decipher this. But here's the situation: Our students our so unaccustomed to fractions that they can only interpret the notation as decimals, that is: they believe that 1/2 = 1.2 (which is, of course, really between 1 and 2). Here's more evidence from the Patricia Kenschaft article, "Racial Equity Requires Teaching Elementary
School Teachers More Mathematics"  (Notices of the AMS, February 2005):
My first time in a fifth grade in one of New Jersey’s most affluent districts (white, of course), I asked where one-third was on the number line. After a moment of quiet, the teacher called out, “Near three, isn’t it?” The children, however, soon figured out the correct answer; they came from homes where such things were discussed.

Likewise, the only way this makes sense is if the teacher interprets 1/3 = 3.1 -- both visually turning the fraction into a decimal, and reading it upside-down. We might at first think the error is the common one that 1/3 = 3, but that wouldn't explain why the teacher thought it was only "near" three.

The next time an apparently inexplicable interpretation of a fraction comes up, consider asking a few more questions to make the perceived value more precise ("Is 1/2 between 1 and 2? Which is it closer to: 1 or 2 or equally distant?" Etc.). See if the problem isn't that it was visually interpreted as decimal point notation.