“There’s something striking about the economy of the counselor’s construction. He drew a single line, and that totally changed one’s vision of the geometry involved.

“Very often, there’s a simple introduction of something that’s not logically within the framework of the question — and it can be very simple — and it utterly changes your view of what the question really is about.”

One of the most persistent math myths in popular culture is the idea that mathematics is primarily about getting right answers.

The truth is, the answer doesn’t matter that much in math. What really matters is how you explain that answer. An answer is “right” if the explanation makes sense.

And if you don’t give an explanation, then you really aren’t doing mathematics at all.

Try This Number Puzzle

Here is a short sequence of numbers. Can you figure out the rule and fill in the next three blanks?

2, 3, 5, 7, ___, ___, ___, …

Remember, what’s important is not which numbers you pick, but rather how you explain your answer.

Possibility #1

Perhaps the sequence is the prime numbers?

2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, …

The prime numbers make a wonderful sequence, though it isn’t the one I was thinking of.

Math Concepts: division as equal sharing, naming fractions, adding fractions, infinitesimals, iteration, limits Prerequisite: able to identify fractions as part of a whole

This is how I tell the story:

We have a cake to share, just the two of us. It’s not TOO big a cake, ‘cuz we don’t want to get sick. An 8 × 8 or 16 × 16 square on the graph paper should be just right. Can you cut the cake so we each get a fair share? Color in your part.

How big is your piece compared to the whole, original cake?

But you know, I’m on a diet, and I just don’t think I can eat my whole piece. Half the cake is too much for me. Is it okay if I share my piece with you? How can we divide it evenly, so we each get a fair share? How big is your new piece? Color it in.

How much of the whole, original cake do you have now? How can you tell?

I keep thinking of my diet, and I really don’t want all my piece of cake. It looks good, but it’s still just a bit too big for me. Will you take half of it? How big is that piece?

Now how much of the whole, original cake do you have? How could we figure it out?
[Teaching tip: Don’t make kids do the calculation on paper. In the early stages, they can visualize and count up the fourths or maybe the eighths. As the pieces get smaller, the easiest way to find the sum is what Cohen does in the video below—identify how much of the cake is left out.]

Even for being on a diet, I still don’t feel very hungry…

[Feature photo above by Michael Cory via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).]

I hear so many people say they hated geometry because of the proofs, but I’ve always loved a challenging puzzle. I found the following puzzle at a blog carnival during my first year of blogging. Don’t worry about the arbitrary two-column format you learned in high school — just think about what is true and how you know it must be so.

I hope you enjoy this “Throw-back Thursday” blast from the Let’s Play Math! blog archives:

One of the great unsolved problems of antiquity was to trisect any angle using only the basic tools of Euclidean geometry: an unmarked straight-edge and a compass. Like the alchemist’s dream of turning lead into gold, this proved to be an impossible task. If you want to trisect an angle, you have to “cheat.” A straight-edge and compass can’t do it. You have to use some sort of crutch, just as an alchemist would have to use a particle accelerator or something.

One “cheat” that works is to fold your paper. I will show you how it works, and your job is to show why …

Want to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and sign up to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.

My free time lately has gone to local events and to book editing. I hope to put up a series of blog posts sometime soon, based on the Homeschool Math FAQs chapter I’m adding to the paperback version of Let’s Play Math. [And of course, I’ll update the ebook whenever I finally publish the paperback, so those of you who already bought a copy should be able to get the new version without paying extra.]

But in the meantime, as I was browsing my blog archives for an interesting “Throw-Back Thursday” post, I stumbled across this old geometry puzzle from Dave Marain over at MathNotations blog:

Jake shows Jack a piece of wood he cut out in the machine shop: a circular arc bounded by a chord. Jake claimed that the arc was not a semicircle. In fact, he claimed it was shorter than a semicircle, i.e., segment AB was not a diameter and arc ACB was less than 180 degrees.

Jack knew this was impossible and argued: “Don’t you see, Jake, that O must be the center of the circle and that OA, OB and OC are radii.”

Jake wasn’t buying this, since he had measured everything precisely. He argued that just because they could be radii didn’t prove they had to be.

Which boy do you agree with?

Pick one side of the debate, and try to find at least three different ways to prove your point.

If you have a student in geometry or higher math, print out the original post (but not the comments — it’s no fun when someone gives you the answer!) and see what he or she can do with it.

Dave offers many other puzzles to challenge your math students. While you are at his blog, do take some time to browse past articles.

Want to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and sign up to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.