Let me bring you up to date, in case you have not been following along.
I am on leave from my community college teaching this year, and am working at Desmos remotely from St Paul.
A large chunk of my time involves working on the pedagogy side of Activity Builder, which we released this summer.
Activity Builder lets you build a classroom activity using one of three basic screen types: graph, question, and text with image.
From time to time, I’ll take the opportunity to turn something I’ve done in the classroom before Activity Builder and make an online version. I did that yesterday. (Here is a link if you want to play along as a student—I recommend doing that!)
It’s a simple little calculus activity on the surface. You see a function that is graphed on the coordinate plane, except that parts of the graph are obscured by large black circles.
There are four such graphs, and I ask the same three questions of each one.
- Behind which circle(s) must there be roots for this function?
- Behind which circles might there be roots?
- Behind which circles is it impossible for there to be roots?
After each round of questions, you have the opportunity to move the circles aside to see for yourself whether there are roots.
This is a little routine I developed as a Calculus teacher to spur conversation, and it contrasts with a standard textbook approach, which asserts the importance of three conditions for knowing there are roots:
- continuity on the interval in question, and
- a sign change between the interval’s endpoints
In that spirit, you are told in this activity that the first three functions are continuous. You are not told that the last one is.
In a classroom setting, I’ll discuss these examples once students have worked through them. In that discussion, I want to get students to verbalize the following things:
- There are sometimes roots where you don’t expect them (Screen 8).
- There are sometimes not roots where it looks like there really ought to be.
- If the function starts negative and becomes positive, it has a root.
- And vice versa. (Screen 4)
- AS LONG AS THAT FUNCTION IS CONTINUOUS!!!!! (Screen 16 for crying out loud)
Only after that am I ready to state the Intermediate Value Theorem.
This activity illustrates a curricular principle I sketched out recently, which is that lessons build on students’ experience, and help them to structure that experience mathematically.
This activity creates an experience for students, and then it’s my job to help students structure that in a formal way—through statement of and exploration of the Intermediate Value Theorem.
I’m not a big fan of providing structure for things students haven’t experienced. Typically they see no need for it, and struggle to incorporate these structures into their view of the world. Also, students end up lacking meaningful mental images for representing and triggering the formal structures.
This is theme that plays out in all of my work, by the way. Math On-A-Stick, Oreos, Talking Math with Your Kids….all are predicated on Experience first, structure later.