In Defense of the Diamond

I had an opportunity to play math with children and parents at a local elementary school last night. (Shoutout to Oak Ridge Elementary! Thanks for hosting!) The Pattern Machines were a big hit.

One seven-year old spent some time deciding what to make and a couple of minutes idly punching buttons before she got down to work. In a short time, she declared she had made a square and presented it for my approval.

I noticed her square, as this seemed important to her, and I told her it gave me an idea. On my own Pattern Machine (leaving hers untouched—an important tenet of this work is never to take the pencil out of the child’s hand!), I made the thing below and asked her whether I too had made a square.

“No. That’s a diamond,” she declared.

I rotated my Pattern Machine 45°.

“Now?” I asked.

Now it’s a square.” she said with a knowing look.

Diamond also came up when I talked with children and adults about a page in Which One Doesn’t Belong?

I used to think that diamond was a lazy term for rhombus, but it is not. Diamond has a stable and robust meaning that is different from rhombus. On that Which One Doesn’t Belong? page, the upper right and the lower left shapes are diamonds. The lower right is not, yet each of these three is a rhombus.

Also sometimes a pentagon is a diamond.

So I propose we treat diamonds as we do other mathematical objects.

Let’s build rock solid definitions of them—definitions that we can take as shared and use to sort diamonds from not-diamonds.

Let’s investigate the consequences of those definitions.

Let’s investigate conjectures and prove theorems.

Together, let’s build a rich field of mathematical inquiry.

I’ll start us off. Some diamonds can be cut into smaller diamonds, as in the example below. Can ALL diamonds be cut into smaller diamonds? If not, which ones can and which ones cannot?

A happy report from the field

Every once in a while, someone shares with me a lovely story of a conversation that they had with their kid that was inspired by the work on this blog. These stories are tremendously satisfying to me because they remind me that isn’t just me and my kids, and that it doesn’t just come naturally. Talking math with your kids is something you can learn.

Today’s report is from Zoe Ryder White, whom I have not met, but who heard about this site from a friend of the project, and who gave me permission to share it.

[I] used some tidbits already this morning – [My daughter] A. was making a giraffe and wanted each leg to be two wooden spools long. At first she wasn’t sure how many total she’d need, but when I asked how many a giraffe has, she quickly figured out the total was 8.

Before reading the talk math with our kids stuff I would’ve probably just said yep, you got it- but we ended up having a great conversation about all the different ways you could figure that problem out. SO FUN.

I am determined to raise a math-confident and math-curious kid. All the work you’re doing in your research is already making a concrete change! Thanks : )

That is the power of asking a follow up question. It is the power of asking, “How do you know that?”

Units of measurement

This post is edited and remixed from a post on my other blog last summer.

Loyal reader Jim Doherty wrote in to report the following conversation with his 4-year old daughter Mo.

They are on a long drive to a hotel.

Mo (4 years old): How far are we?

Jim: We are 20 minutes away.

Later, having arrived safely, the family heads to the pool. Mo is practicing the fine art of jumping from the edge of the pool into her father’s arms. An important part of this art is to increase the risk by jumping greater and greater distances.

pool.jump

Tabitha reconstructs a jump of considerable size for illustrative purposes.

Mo: (four years old) Back up, Daddy!

Jim: This far?

Mo: More!

Jim: Here?

Mo: More! You need to be five minutes away!

Jim: Do you mean five feet away?

Mo: No! Five minutes!

At this point, Papa Doherty is flustered. Is Mo messing with him? Is she confused? Is he at fault for answering Mo’s earlier How far? question with a time rather than a distance? What should he do?

My hunch is that Mo is not messing with her father. Instead, she has taken his cue for talking about how far, and she is playing with it. This is how children learn—they hear something and they try it out.

Here is how we might turn this conversation into a bit more math learning. Imagine Jim’s next response this way:

Jim: OK. Tell me when I’m there. But then don’t jump right away; I want to ask you a question before you do. [Daddy backs up slowly…]

Mo: OK! There!

Jim: Right. Here’s my question: Do you think it will take you five minutes to get to me from where you are?

Mo: Yes.

Jim: Do you know how long five minutes is?

Mo: That far.

Jim: No, no. Can you think of something we do together that takes five minutes?

Mo: No.

Jim: It takes us about five minutes to read [INSERT TITLE OF FAVORITE PICTURE BOOK HERE] together. Do you think it will take that much time for you to get to me?

At this point, I have no idea how Mo will respond (which is what fascinates me so much about talking math with kids). I do know that pretty soon, she is going to want to jump, and that whether that’s right away or after a few more exchanges doesn’t really matter.

What matters is that she’s been asked to think.

This line of discussion lays the foundation for thinking about distances, times and their relationships to each other. It supports Mo’s attempts to participate in the conversation about measurement.

My conversation with Tabitha about the height of our hill last summer was in a similar spirit; we worked on the meaning of height when she asked me to lie down on the hill.

pool.splash

Griffin wanted in on the action. Here is his jump shot.

Baking cookies

Talking Math with Other People’s Kids Month rolls along…

Jennifer Lawler wrote up the following conversation on her blog.

Jennifer is in the kitchen baking chocolate chip cookies when her son Ian (8 years old) wanders in and observes her methods. She has put three balls of cookie dough in a row, two balls of dough in the next row, and is beginning a new row.

Ian (8 years old): Are you going to put three in the next row?

Mom: Yep.

Ian: And then two in the last row?

Mom: Yep…How many cookies are on the tray?

cookie.doughSimulated cookie dough. Shout out to anyone who can ID the actual substance in this photo.

Ian: Ten.

Mom: How do you know that?

Ian: Three plus three is six, and two plus two is four, and six plus four is ten.

Mom: Hmm….my brain immediately puts the three and two together to make 5 and then adds the 5s together.

Mom: The recipe days it makes 5 dozen cookies. How many is that?

Ian: So that’s 5 12′s?

Mom: Yes.

Ian: 36? No…24 plus… No, wait. 60.

Mom: Ok, I made a double batch, so how many is that?

Ian: 120

Mom: And if there’s 10 on a tray, how many trays of cookies will that be?

Ian: 12

Mom: I have three cookie sheets, so how many times will I have to put each tray in the oven?

Ian: 12 divided by 3 is 4 – four times.

So what do we learn?

What I love about this conversation is that every question is an authentic one that someone baking cookies might consider along the way. I love that Jennifer keeps asking questions until she hits one that forces Ian to think, and I love that she offers Ian a different way to view the cookies on the tray (2 fives instead of 6+4). This last bit sends an important message—that math ideas are something we talk about, not just memorized facts.

Most of the time when people think about the math involved in baking, it’s the fractions. Fractions of a cup and of a teaspoon are fine. But we don’t actually do much math with them. If I need 3\frac{1}{2}, I usually measure 3 cups and then use the \frac{1}{2} cup measure. It’s counting the whole way. This is good, and it’s useful for helping children become accustomed to the relative sizes of fractions, and to the language surrounding them. But there isn’t as much mathematical thinking going on as when Jennifer asks Ian how many cookies are in 5 dozen, or to say how he knows how many cookies are on a tray with a 3-2-3-2 pattern.

Starting the conversation

Baking together is a great opportunity for asking how many? questions of various forms. Ask your child to put things in rows, or to count things that already are. Guess how many chocolate chips are in each cookie, and then in the whole batch. Compare to the expected number of raisins in an oatmeal cookie.

All along the way, listen to your child’s thinking and offer your own ideas. Make it a conversation.

Tabitha and I had a blast a while back arranging crackers and pepperoni in rows. Just like Jennifer and Ian, we predicted how things would come out and enjoyed talking and cooking together.

[Product review] The bathtub

Talking Math with Other People’s Kids month continues…

Today we pay tribute to the family bathtub, and its profound contribution to family math talk over the centuries.

Photo Feb 04, 9 13 03 PM

 

Don’t laugh! Is yours more perfect?

Dad and loyal reader Jon Hasenbank reports some math talk at bathtime with his own 5 year old son, whom we will call Isaiah.

Isaiah is in the bathtub, having a lovely time. He has stacked his bath-toy Elmo on top of his bath-toy Cookie Monster.

isaiah (5 years old): Look! His eyes are peeking out!

Dad: The water is almost over his head. I wonder if it’s deeper near your feet?

He did not report further details to me.

But he did demonstrate an important principle of talking math with your kids—It’s not a conversation until you, as a parent, participate. When Jon turned Isaiah’s observation into a wondering, he set the stage for some good math talk.

The bathtub is great for this!

Tabitha has complained about the depth of her bath in the past—always that it is not deep enough. “It’s not even one foot deep” she has wailed as her toes stick out of the water. “Is it one hand deep?” I have asked. And—as with Jon and Isaiah—we have been off and running on a lovely exploration of measurement.

 

Multiplication and rectangles

I want to suggest a lovely post by somebody else.

It is written by a math teacher who converses with his niece (who is 7 years old) about rectangles and multiplication. As an example, the rectangle below shows that 6×3 is 18. Or is it that 3×6 is 18? That becomes the focus of part of the conversation.

This rectangle shows that 6x3 is 18. Or is it 3x6?

The girls’ parents look on as the discussion unfolds.

At one point, the math teacher stops the mother who is trying to intervene to help the child see that 4×3 is the same as 3×4. And this leads to the lovely sentence in the blog post:

I understand that it is not obvious to non-teachers that not every encounter with mathematics needs to reach “fruition.”

What he means by this is that children can learn from thinking about math, even if they don’t end up with the right answer, and even if they do not experience the full story (here, that multiplication is commutative, which means AxB=BxA for all possible numbers).

Another fabulous math teacher, Fawn Nguyen, told me, “I dare say that it’s not obvious to teachers also.”

Finally, non-math teacher parents may be interested to learn that—consistent with Fawn’s observation—a regular piece of feedback I get from math teachers on my writing here is how impressed they are by my ability to not worry about Tabitha and Griffin getting right answers.

Short notes

I passed a lovely morning with some math teacher friends at the Museum of Math in New York City today. Sadly, I did not have Griffin or Tabitha along. We would have had a ball.

I have three observations…

One. There is lots for kids to do there. It is truly a bonanza of mathematical conversation starters. I left wanting to be hired on as “Docent for Talking Math with Your Kids”. This is because the math does not smack you in the face. Instead, the math in the exhibits tends to surface in the process of playing, experimenting and paying very careful attention to what is going on.

In short, you want to talk about these exhibits and you want to linger.

Two. Many of the exhibits are designed in ways that allow kids to play and to do math beyond the intended activity. The exhibit below, for example, kept two little boys (each 5 or 6 years old) busy for 20 minutes although the original activity was way beyond them.

The first five minutes, they were sharing each of the shapes equally, making sure each of the two boys had the same number of squares, and the same number of triangles, et cetera. The next 10 minutes, they spent arranging the shapes on the screen, marveling at the things this provoked on the screen beneath.

It was lovely.

It could have been a bummer, though. If someone had insisted on doing the intended activity, these kids could not have done it. If the shapes had been electronic instead of concrete, the kids would not have been able to play with them in such creative ways.

Well done, Museum of Math!

Three. On the subway train back to my hotel, I noticed a little girl—probably 4 years old—holding up four fingers as she sat between her mother and brother.

I moved to be in listening range.

It turns out, she had been told they would be on the train for five stops. She had been putting up one additional finger as the train left each stop.

Sister (4 years old): [She is holding up four fingers as the train enters the station] This is our stop!

Brother (8 years old): No. The sign says there’s one more stop.

Sister: But you said five stops.

Mom: One more, sweetie.

The train stops. People get off and on. The doors close. The train starts up again.

The girl keeps exactly four fingers up the whole time.