Cold snap

Tabitha (9 years old) is keenly attuned to the temperatures these days, as subzero air temperatures or wind chills mean indoor recess. Being a child of great physical energy, indoor recess is not ideal.

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We have an indoor/outdoor thermometer on our kitchen table, which she checks several times a day. Yesterday evening before doing the dishes together, she checks the thermometer.

Tabitha (9 years old): It’s 1 below.

Me: What was it this morning? Five degrees?

T: Four

Me: Crazy. So it’s colder now.

T: Yeah.

Me: How much colder?

T: Five below

Me: How do you know? Is it because 4 + 1, or did you count?

T: Neither.

Me: Oh! Now I have to hear it!

T: Well…Four minus four is zero, then it’s one less, so it’s five.

Me: So one more than four less…er…one less than four….no….

[we laugh]

T: It’s one more because it’s one less!

So what do we learn?

This conversation reminded me very much of a game I used to play with Griffin (who is now 12 years old) on cold winter mornings. In both cases, the children naturally developed a strategy using zero as a stopping point in making comparisons.

The thing I especially love about this story is that Tabitha expresses a complicated relationship that is crystal clear to her: “One more because it’s one less.” Expanded out, she’s saying that “The difference between -1 and 4 is bigger than the difference between 0 and 4—the difference is bigger by 1 because -1 is one unit further from 4 than 0 is.”

She can express this complicated idea because it is her own.

If I tried to tell her that this is how subtraction with negative numbers works, she would definitely pronounce my ideas confusing—whether they were expressed in the language of 9-year-olds or the language of mathematicians.

I cannot tell her these things and have them be meaningful. What I can do is ask how much colder it is now than it was this morning.

Starting the conversation

Move to Minnesota.

I’m kidding.

You can buy a Celsius thermometer, though.

You can make comparisons more generally, both asking your child how she knows, and talking about how you think about it. How many more full cups in the muffin tin than empty ones? How many more fork than spoons? How many more adults on the bus than children (or vice versa)? How many more quarters than dimes in the change bowl?

February is “Talking Math with Other People’s Kids” month

You won’t be hearing much from Griffin and Tabitha this month. Instead, you’ll hear from other children and their parents who have talked math and have shared their conversations with me.

It will be a ton of fun to get a peek into these other households, and to see how frequently ideas and questions about number and shape come up in life with young children.

I would love to hear your own reports, and to gather a collection of stories representing diverse families, cultures, languages and experiences. Shoot me a note describing conversations you have participated in or witnessed. I’ll feature as many of them here as I can.

Let’s kick things off with an example of a father and his five-year old daughter, and how Twitter helped them talk a bit more math than they otherwise might have…

Andy is a dad in Minneapolis. Let’s call his daughter Martine. Andy tweeted me on Friday (January 31).

Here is how this sort of thing would go in our house.

Martine (5 years old): If tomorrow is February first, does that mean today is February 0th?

calendar

Dad: Yeah, I guess we could call it that. If we do, what would yesterday have been?

M: February negative one.

Dad: Oooo. Nice! And what about the day before that?

Et cetera. At some point, the conversation would go somewhere else. Or if she’s still interested, I might give it a twist with a question like this.

Dad: So if today is both January 31 and February 0, and if tomorrow is February 1, shouldn’t it also have a January name?

I would be probing Martine’s double-naming idea for each day. And then…

Dad: Hey! I know! If today is both a January and a February day, then tomorrow should be both a February and a March day, right? What is tomorrow’s date in March?

As I mentioned, the conversation may very well have broken down by this point. But these what if questions are the things that turn a cool observation into a conversation. That conversation is where we turn kids’ minds on.

Dad Chris Hunter suggested that first follow up question: What about yesterday?

Andy asked Martine about that on Saturday.

Martine said that the day before February 0 would be February negative 1. Andy reports—and this is important—never having explicitly discussed negative numbers with Martine. No number lines, no backwards counting past 0.

But surely they have talked about the weather. Below-zero temperatures have been as common as snowflakes in Minnesota this year. Talking about the weather may have planted the idea. Then the calendar was an opportunity to make a connection.

All of this leads to two important ideas about talking math with kids:

  1. It’s not a conversation until you, as a parent, participate. Martine noticed something (Jan. 31 could be Feb. 0). Andy turned it into a conversation when he asked about the previous day.
  2. These conversations are facilitated by availability of objects. Turning the calendar became a learning opportunity for Andy and Martine. No calendar, no conversation.

You can read our full Twitter conversation here.

And you can read about other conversations facilitated by objects in these previous posts:

Guess the temperature

This post is from last year on my math teaching blog. Presently we (along with much of the American Midwest) are in the middle of a serious cold snap. So I have edited and remixed it for the Talking Math with Your Kids audience.

guess.the.temperature

This morning’s situation. Colder air is on the way.

Enjoy.

And stay warm.

Griffin (8 years old in this story) and I play a little game called Guess the Temperature. It goes about how you would expect. We step outside on the way to his bus. I ask him to guess the temperature. If I don’t already know, I get to guess after he does. If I do already know, I don’t cheat; we just remark on how close his guess was.

In Minnesota, in winter, this means we get to study both positive and negative numbers.

Me: Griff, guess the temperature.

Griffin (eight years old): Two below zero.

Me: It’s three degrees above.

G: So I was off.

Me: Not by much, though. How much were you off by?

G: [muttering to himself, then loudly] Five degrees!

Me: How did you know that?

G: It’s two degrees up to zero, then three more.

Me: So what if it had been 10 degrees out, and you guessed 3?

G: [quickly] I’d be seven off.

Me: Right. How do you know that?

G: Ten minus three is seven.

Me: Nice. Subtraction. Do you know that you can always express the difference between your guess and the actual temperature with subtraction?

So in that last example, you subtracted your guess from the actual temperature. You could do that with your real guess today.

So three minus negative 2 is five.

G: [silent]

By this time we were nearing the bus stop. Griffin’s silence seemed a clear sign that he was ready to move on.

So what do we learn?

Two things are important in this conversation: (1) Griffin’s solution method, and (2) the connection to subtraction.

Griffin’s solution method. Griffin’s strategy is a common one for children to invent. He uses zero as the boundary between positive and negative numbers. To compare how much bigger a positive number is than a negative number, you have to cross that boundary. You have to go past zero, so it just makes sense to him to divide the distance into two pieces—the part to get to zero, and the rest.

We live near a major road—Arcade Street. We often use it as a boundary for our neighborhood. So the local recreation center is three blocks on the other side of Arcade; plus the one block to get to Arcade. That’s four blocks total. Talking in this way about everyday navigation supports thinking about temperatures, which in turn support thinking about integers.

Connection to subtraction. From years of teaching middle school (and—to be honest—college), I know that subtracting integers is tough going. The rules for solving 3-^{-}2 don’t seem to connect to students’ experiences with numbers.

Notice how quickly Griffin connects the 10° and 3° situation to subtraction, while not seeing that subtraction applies to the 3° and -2° situation we started with. Perhaps my mentioning that these are the same will lay the groundwork for him noticing it in the future.

In the meantime, we learn that learning subtraction is a lot like learning division. In a recent post, I showed how Griffin thought differently about division depending on the numbers involved and on the context for thinking about it. Now we see that this is true about subtraction, too. 10-3? No problem. 3-(-2)? Problem.

Starting the conversation

Children—all children—develop mathematical models of their worlds before they study them in school. Parents have opportunities to support this through conversation.

Talk about landmarks, way stations on your journeys. Mileposts, subway stations, bus stops, blocks…these are all opportunities to help children build the mental models necessary to think about zero as an important landmark.

Talk about distances. How many blocks is an example from our family life. How many subway stops came up for girl I observed in New York City last fall. How many pages did we read in our book is another example where subtracting endpoints is helpful.

The biggest number

I do not recall the beginning of this conversation, but I do recall that we were eating pizza at the dinner table when Tabitha anticipated my turn in the dicussion.

Tabitha (6 years old): I know what you’re going to say, Daddy. “Counting never ends.”

Me: I suppose that sounds like something I would say, yes.

T: What’s the biggest number, though? Googolplex?

Quick tutorial. A “googol”—spelled that way—refers to this number: 10^{100}, or “a one followed by a hundred zeroes”.

10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

It is, of course, a very big number. Far too big to be practical in any meaningful sense. The very idea of such a large number having a name is fascinating to children. Most children (in my experience) encounter one googol in their social interactions with other children. The googol does not appear in the Common Core State Standards.

A “googolplex” is 10^{10^{100}}, or 10^{googol} or “a one followed by a googol zeroes”. You cannot write this number out in standard form.

You may Google googol for lots of interesting characterizations of how extremely silly this very large number is.

For example, you will not live for one googol seconds.

Indeed, the universe has not existed for one googol seconds (not even by the greatest estimates of its age—not even close).

You get the idea.

Me: Well, like you said I would say, counting never ends, so no googolplex is not the biggest number.

T: If you counted by 10,000 could you ever get to googolplex in your life?

Me: No.

T: If you counted by 11,000?

Me: No.

T: 12,000? 13,000?

Me: No. Even if you counted by googol, you couldn’t get to googolplex in your lifetime.

T: Well, what if you counted by googolplex?

Me: Well sure. It would the start of your count, wouldn’t it?

She decides to demonstrate this (Side note, we have been counting by various numbers of late).

T: Googolplex.

She smiles broadly, congratulating herself for successfully counting to what she has perceived to be the largest number.

We discuss further the existence of a largest number. Then Tabitha makes a claim that takes us in a different direction.

T: Eventually, numbers just go back to the beginning.

Me: So if you keep counting, you get to zero?

T: No.

Me: One?

T: No, Daddy! Don’t you remember there are numbers before zero?

So what do we learn?

Big numbers are fun. Boy howdy are big numbers fun. Children love to talk about the biggest number, and whether one exists. There is all kinds of lovely thinking going on when they ask these kinds of questions.

Talking about big numbers often leads to talking about infinity. If there is no biggest number, it is because numbers go on forever. The only thing Tabitha has experience with that goes on forever is a loop. She drew on that loop metaphor in imagining that numbers go back to the beginning eventually.

Starting the conversation

Listen for the biggest number talk. It often surfaces when children are comparing their athletic prowess (I can jump 2 sidewalk squares! I can jump 100 sidewalk squares! Pretty soon, someone is claiming to be able to jump googol or infinity sidewalk squares.)

When it surfaces, support it. Play and explore with your child. Answer questions. Ask questions. Talk about it and have fun. Look stuff up together when the questions go past your own knowledge. Shoot me a question here at Talking Math with Your Kids if I can answer any of those for you.