Last weekend, it was Big MathsJam, and among the mathematical delights I sampled, there was a talk by Christian Lawson-Perfect about stacking cups. You can see a really quick version of his talk on the Aperiodical website. Before reading on, you might like to think about the problem a bit…
At the weekend, I went to a lovely party, and on finding out I was a mathematician, one of the other attendees shared a weight puzzle that I think I have come across before but never tried to solve. I have been thinking about it on and off since then, and I promised to the other party-goers that I’d share my solution once I got there, so here we go!
First of all then, the problem. You have 12 objects which look identical. 11 are the same weight; one is different, but we don’t know if it’s heavier or lighter. You have a set of balancing scales, and you can do up to three weighings. How do you determine the odd weight out and determine whether it’s heavier or lighter?
You might want to have a think about the problem for yourself before reading on.
There are various words I would like to ban, or rather, as I am generally quite liberal in my views and don’t tend to go in for banning, words I would caution against using carelessly. I may blog more about such words in the future (Ha! Who am I kidding? When did I last blog?) but for today let’s talk about the word… easy.
“Let’s start with something easy!” “I know it looks hard, but don’t worry, it’s easy!” “If you can do x you’ll be able to do y because it’s much easier!” Familiar? These sort of phrases trip off the tongue, particularly if you are an educator who wants to make your learners feel safe. They are all messages designed to make the listener less anxious, and more capable. They are intended to empower! Unfortunately, I know from personal experience that such messages can be the opposite of empowering.
You see, “easy” is not a property of a task or a concept. It is a relationship between the task or concept and a person. There is no such thing as an easy question, because it depends on whom you are asking. (Don’t even get me started on political interviews in which someone is badgered to answer a “very easy question, yes or no” where actually a more nuanced answer is necessary and neither “yes” nor “no” is a satisfactory answer).
In some cases, it is glaringly obvious that “easy” is not a straightforward absolute concept. For example, if I were to ask an A Level Further Maths student to find the values of x such that x2+5x+6=0, I would hope they would agree with me that it is an easy question. If I asked my 11 year old niece, she would find it very hard. If I asked my friend’s toddler, he would find it impossible to even understand the question.
I can see two problems that may arise when using the word “easy”. Firstly, using the word glibly without knowing your audience. This can happen when teaching or presenting to a group you do not know well, or a group where you make assumptions based on their prior knowledge, achievement and experience. You start off with an icebreaker, something everyone will be able to handle, and you introduce it as such. Then you find out that you’ve massively misjudged the situation, and people are stuck on your easy task! Or, perhaps worse, everyone does find it easy, except some poor soul who is then left behind (or hides the fact they don’t understand and just feels utterly rotten). This can be mitigated against by using “Low threshold, high ceiling” activities where literally everyone can get started and you can assess what “easy” means in the context of the group in front of you. And if you introduce the task with “here’s a thing” rather than “here’s a lovely easy thing”, so using neutral language, you’re not setting people up for failure if they don’t get it straight away. The flip side of this is that if you introduce something that many people might find difficult, but with neutral language, you’re not in danger of setting up a self-fulfilling prophesy. I remember teaching the technique of completing the square to a group who were not expected to tackle such questions because they were in one of the lower sets. I didn’t tell them it was a “hard” topic until we’d finished. Their response? “But that was EASY, miss!” It wasn’t often I heard that class say THAT!
The second problem is more subtle. This can happen when you know someone well, and make assumptions about what they will find easy from what you already know they can do. The problem with this is that there isn’t a nice linear spectrum from easy to hard with everything in the same order for everyone. This one has bitten me in both directions. It has taken me decades to understand that just because I find some things very easy that other people find hard, it doesn’t mean I won’t find hard the things they find easy! For example, I am pretty good at solving STEP maths questions, and I am terrible at recognising faces or noticing when people have changed their appearance. There have been times when people have made me feel awful by saying things like “but you can do x, of course you must be able to do y!” I am pretty sure I have also made other people feel rotten by assuming that they would find something trivial based on my knowledge about other things they could do. (Sorry! I really will try harder in future not to do this! If you catch me doing it, call me out please.)
In general, I think as educators we should use the word “easy” with caution. There are better and clearer ways to express the meanings we are trying to capture, and if we allow learners to make up their own mind whether something is easy or hard, and listen to what they have to say, perhaps they will become resilient and resourceful, rather than feeling rotten.
Why do we teach maths in schools?
a) To create the research mathematicians of the future
b) To empower ALL of our children to take their place as mathematically literate members of society
c) To instil in our citizens an appreciation of mathematics as a thing of beauty and truth
If we create a mathematics curriculum that allows everyone to reach a minimum standard of mathematical understanding (functional numeracy, perhaps) but also allows a generation to leave school without any appreciation for the wonder and pleasure of doing mathematics, then we have failed. But at the same time, if the system identifies and nurtures superbly talented mathematicians who go on to win Field’s Medals, while allowing some children to slip through the net and leave school innumerate, we have also failed.
If we work towards c) however, and see the job of school mathematics lessons as teaching all children to think mathematically (and to understand what we mean by thinking mathematically), I think we will go a long way to achieving the other two objectives – they needn’t be mutually exclusive. In classrooms where high-level mathematical reasoning is the norm, a good level of mathematical literacy becomes the currency for convincing others of your ideas, so pupils are given a motivation for wanting to become more skilled in mathematical procedures. If thinking mathematically is the expectation, those children who enjoy the pedantic* process of convincing themselves and others of the truth of a conjecture will discover themselves to be mini-mathematicians and will be more likely to embark on the process that could lead them to fame, fortune and Field’s Medals. As soon as our curriculum aims to do anything other than exposing young people to mathematical thinking, we risk doing at least some of the children in our care a great disservice.
*I do not use this term in a pejorative way. I took great delight in being exceedingly pedantic throughout my secondary school career.