# Tag Archives: data modeling

## Modeling Linear Equations, Part 3

See Part I and Part II.

The success of my linear modeling unit has completely transformed the way I teach algebra.

From Part II, which I wrote at the beginning of the second semester at my last school:

In Modeling Linear Equations, I described the first weeks of my effort to give my Algebra II students a more (lord save me) organic understanding of linear equations. These students have been through algebra I twice (8th and 9th grade), and then I taught them linear equations for the better part of a month last semester. Yet before this month, none of them could quickly generate a table of values for a linear equation in any form (slope intercept, standard form, or a verbal model). They did know how to read a slope from a graph, for the most part, but weren’t able to find an equation from a table. They didn’t understand how a graph of a line was related to a verbal model—what would the slope be, a starting price or a monthly rate? What sort of situations would have a meaningful x-intercept?

This approach was instantly successful, as I relate. Last year, I taught the entire first semester content again in two months before moving on, and still got in about 60% of the Algebra II standards (pretty normal for a low ability class).

So when I began intermediate algebra in the fall, I decided to start right off with modeling. I just toss up some problems on the board–Well, actually, I start with a stick figure cartoon based on this lesson plan:

I put it on the board, and ask a student who did middling poorly on my assessment test, “So, what could Stan buy?”

Shrug. “I don’t know.”

“Oh, come on. You’re telling me you never had \$45 bucks and a spending decision? Assume no sales tax.”

Tentatively. “He could just buy 9 burritos?”

“Yes, he could! See? Told you you could do it. How many tacos could he buy?”

“None.”

At this point, another student figures it out, “So if he doesn’t buy any burritos, he could buy, like,…”

“Fifteen tacos. Why is it 15?”

“Because that’s how much you can buy for \$45.”

“Anyone have another possibility? You? Guy in grey?”

Long pause, as guy in grey hopes desperately I’ll move on. I wait him out.

“I don’t know.”

“Really? Not at all? Oh, come on. Pretend it’s you. It’s your money. You bought 3 burritos. How many tacos can you get?”

This is the great part, really, because whoever I call on, and it’s always a kid who doesn’t want to be in the room, his brain starts working.

“He has \$30 left, right? So he can buy ten tacos.”

“Hey, now, look at that. You did know. How’d you come up with ten?”

“It costs \$15 to get three burritos, and he has \$30 left.”

So I start a table, with Taco and Burrito headers, entering the first three values.

“And you know it’s \$15 because….”

He’s worried it’s a trick question. “…it’s five dollars for each burrito?”

I force a couple other unwilling suckers to give me the last two integer entries

“Yeah. So see how you’re doing this in your head. You are automatically figuring the total cost of the burritos how?”

“Multiplying the burritos by five dollars.”

“And, girl over there, in pink, how do you know how much money to spend on tacos?”

“It’s \$3 a taco, and you see how much left you have of the \$45.”

“And again with the math in your head. You are multiplying the number of tacos by 3, and the number of burritos by….”

“Five.”

“Right. So we could write it out and have an actual equation.” And so I write out the equation, first with tacos and burritos, and then substituting x and y.

“This equation describes a line. We call it the standard form: Ax + By = C. Standard form is an extremely useful way to describe lines that model purchasing decisions.”

Then I graph the table and by golly, it’s dots in the shape of a line.

“Okay, who remembers anything about lines and slopes? Is this a positive or a negative slope?”

Silence. Of course. Which is better than someone shouting out “Positive!”

“So, guy over there. Yeah, you.”

“I wasn’t paying attention.”

“I know. Now you are. So tell me what happens to tacos when you buy more burritos.”

Silence. I wait it out.

“Um. I can’t buy as many tacos?”

“Nice. So what does that mean about tacos and burritos?”

At this point, I usually get some raised hands. “Blue jersey?”

“If you buy more tacos, you can’t buy as many burritos, either.”

“So as the number of tacos goes up, the number of burritos…”

“Goes down.”

“So. This dotted line is reflecting the fact that as tacos go up, burritos go down. I ask again: is this slope a positive slope or a negative slope?” and now I get a good spattering of “Negative” responses.

From there, I remind them of how to calculate a slope, which is always great because now, instead of it just being the 8 thousandth time they’ve been given the formula, they see that it has direct relevance to a spending decision they make daily. The slope is the reduction in burritos they can buy for every increased taco. I remind them how to find the equation of a slope from both the line and the table itself.

“So I just showed you guys the standard form of a line, but does anyone remember the equation form you learned back in algebra one?”

By now they’re warming up as they realize that they do remember information from algebra one and earlier, information that they thought had no relevance to their lives but, apparently, does. Someone usually comes up with the slope-intercept form. I put y=mx+b on the board and talk the students through identifying the parameters. Then, using the taco-burrito model, we plug in the slope and y-intercept and the kids see that the buying decision, one they are extremely familiar with, can be described in math equations that they now understand.

So then, I put a bunch of situations on the board and set them to work, for the rest of that day and the next.

I’ve now kicked off three intermediate algebra classes cold with this approach, and in every case the kids start modeling the problems with no hesitation.

Remember, all but maybe ten of the students in each class are kids who scored below basic or lower in Algebra I. Many of them have already failed intermediate algebra (aka Algebra II, no trig) once. And in day one, they are modeling linear equations and genuinely getting it. Even the ones who are unhappy (more on that in a minute) are getting it.

So from this point on, when a kid sees something like 5x + 7y = 35, they are thinking “something costs \$5, something costs \$7, and they have \$35 to spend” which helps them make concrete sense of an abstract expression. Or y = 3x-7 means that Joe has seven fewer than 3 times as many graphic novels as Tio does (and, class, who has fewer graphic novels? Yes, Tio. Trust me, it’s much easier to make the smaller value x.)

Here’s an early student sample, from my current class, done just two days in. This is a boy who traditionally struggles with math—and this is homework, which he did on his own—definitely not his usual approach.

Notice that he’s still having trouble figuring out the equation, which is normal. But three of the four tables are correct (he struggles with perimeter, also common), and two of the four graphs are perfect—even though he hasn’t yet figured out how to use the graph to find the equation.

So he’s doing the part he’s learned in class with purpose and accuracy, clearly demonstrating ability to pull out solutions from a word model and then graph them. Time to improve his skills at building equations from graphs and tables.

After two days of this, I break the skills up into parts, reminding the weakest students how to find the slope from a graph, and then mixing and matching equations with models, like this:

So now, I’m emphasizing stuff they’ve learned before, but never been able to integrate because it’s been too abstract. The strongest kids in the class are moving through it all much faster, and are often into linear inequalities after a couple weeks.

Then I bring in one of my favorite handouts, built the first time I did this all a year ago: ModelingDatawithPoints. Back to word models, but instead of the model describing the math, the model gives them two points. Their task is to find the equation from the points. And glory be, the kids get it every time. I’m not sure who’s happier, them or me.

At some point in the first week, I give them a quiz, in which they have to turn two different models into tables, equations, and graphs (one from points), identify an equation from a line, identify an equation from a table, and graph two points to find the equation. The last question is, “How’s it going?”

This has been consistent through three classes (two this semester, one last). Most of the kids like it a lot and specifically tell me they are learning more. The top kids often say it’s very interesting to think of linear equations in this fashion. And about 10-20% of the students this first week are very, very nervous. They want specific methods and explicit instructions.

The day after the quiz, I address these concerns by pointing out that everyone in the room has been given these procedures countless times, and fewer than 30% of them remember how to apply them. The purpose of my method, I tell them, is to give them countless ways of thinking about linear equations, come up with their own preferred methods, and increase their ability to move from one form to another all at once, rather than focusing in on one method and moving to another, and so on. I also point out that almost all the students who said they didn’t like my method did pretty well on the quiz. The weakest kids almost always like the approach, even with initially weak results.

After a week or more of this, I move onto systems. First, solving them graphically—and I use this as a reason to explitly instruct them on sketching lines quickly, using one of three methods:

Then I move on to models, two at a time. Last semester, my kids struggled with this and I didn’t pick up on it until a month later. This last week, I was alert to the problems they were having creating two separate models within a problem, so I spent an extra day focusing on the methods. The kids approved, and I could see a much better understanding. We’ll see how it goes on the test.

Here’s the boardwork for a systems models.

So I start by having them generate solutions to each model and matching them up, as well as finding the equations. Then they graph the equations and see that the intersection, the graphing solution, is identical to the values that match up in the tables.

Which sets the stage for the two algebraic methods: substitution and combination (aka elimination, addition).

Phew.

Last semester, I taught modeling to my math support class, and they really enjoyed it:

Some sample work–the one on the far right is done by a Hispanic sophomore who speaks no English.

Okay, back at 2000 words. Time to wrap it up. I’ll discuss where I’m taking it next in a second post.

Some tidbits: modeling quadratics is tough to do organically, because there are so few real-life models. The velocity problems are helpful, but since they’re the only type they are a bit too canned. I usually use area questions, but they aren’t nearly as realistic. Exponentials, on the other hand, are easy to model with real-life examples. I’m adding in absolute value modeling this semester for the first time, to see how it goes.

Anyway. This works a treat. If I were going to teach algebra I again (nooooooo!) I would start with this, rather than go through integer operations and fractions for the nineteenth time.

## Teaching Math vs. Doing Math

Justin Reich of EdWeek (not to be confused with Justin Baeder of EdWeek) wrote enthusiastically of a new study, asking What If Your Word Problems Knew What You Liked?:

Last week, Education Week ran an article about a recent study from Southern Methodist University showing that students performed better on algebra word problems when the problems tapped into their interests. …The researchers surveyed a group of students, identified some general categories of students’ interests (sports, music, art, video games, etc.), and then modified the word problems to align with those categories. So a problem about costs of of new home construction (\$46.50/square foot) could be modified to be about a football game (\$46.50/ticket) or the arts (\$46.50/new yearbook). Researchers then randomly divided students into two groups, and they gave one group the regular problems while the other group of students received problems aligned to their interests.

The math was exactly the same, but the results weren’t. Students with personalized problems solved them faster and more accurately (emphasis mine), with the biggest gains going to the students with the most difficulty with the mathematics. The gains from the treatment group of students (those who got the personalized problems) persisted even after the personalization treatment ended, suggesting that students didn’t just do better solving the personalized problems, but they actually learned the math better.

Reich has it wrong. From the study:

Students in the experimental group who received personalization for Unit 6 had significantly higher performance within Unit 6, particularly on the most difficult concept in the unit, writing algebraic expressions (10% performance difference, p<.001). The effect of the treatment on expression-writing was significantly larger (p<.05) for students identified as struggling within the tutoring environment1 (22% performance difference). Performance differences favoring the experimental group for solving result and start unknowns did not reach significance (p=.089). In terms of overall efficiency, students in the experimental group obtained 1.88 correct answers per minute in Unit 6, while students in the control group obtained 1.56 correct answers per minute. Students in the experimental group also spent significantly less time (p<.01) writing algebraic expressions (8.6 second reduction). However, just because personalization made problems in Unit 6 easier for students to solve, does not necessary mean that students learned more from solving the personalized problems.

(bold emphasis mine)

and in the Significance section:

As a perceptual scaffold (Goldstone & Son, 2005), personalization allowed students to grasp the deeper, structural characteristics of story situations and then represent them symbolically, and retain this understanding with the support removed. This was evidenced by the transfer, performance, and efficiency effects being strongest for, or even limited to, algebraic expression-writing (even though other concepts, like solving start unknowns, were not near ceiling).

So the students who got personalized instruction did not demonstrate improved accuracy, at least to the same standard as they demonstrated improved ability to model.

I tweeted this as an observation and got into a mild debate with Michael Pershan, who runs a neat blog on math mistakes. Here’s the result:

I’m like oooh, I got snarked at! My own private definition of math!

But I hate having conversations on Twitter, and I probably should have just written a blog entry anyway.

Here’s my point:

Yes, personalizing the context enabled a greater degree of translation. But when did “translating word problems” become, as Michael Pershan puts it, “math”? Probably about 30 years old, back when we began trying to figure out why some kids weren’t doing as well in math as others were. We started noticing that word problems gave kids more difficulty than straight equations, so we start focusing a lot of time and energy on helping students translate word problems into equations—and once the problems are in equation form, the kids can solve them, no sweat!

Except, in this study, that didn’t happen. The kids did better at translating, but no better at solving. That strikes me as interesting, and clearly, the paper’s author also found it relevant.

Pershan chastised me, a tad snootily, for saying the kids “didn’t do better at math”. Translating math IS math. He cited the Common Core standards showing the importance of data modeling. Well, yeah. Go find a grandma and teach her eggsucking. I teach modeling as a fundamental in my algebra classes. It makes sense that Pershan would do this; he’s very much about the why and the how of math, and not as much about the what. Nothing wrong with this in a math teacher, and lord knows I do it as well.

But we shouldn’t confuse the distinction between teaching math and doing it. So I asked the following hypothetical: Suppose you have two groups of kids given a test on word problems. Group 1 translates each problem impeccably into an equation that is then solved incorrectly. Group 2 doesn’t bother with the equations but gives the correct answer to each problem.

Which group would you say was “better at math”?

I mean, really. Think like a real person, instead of a math teacher.

Many math teachers have forgotten that for most people, the point of math is to get the answer. Getting the answer used to be enough for math teachers, too, until kids stopped getting the answer with any reliability. Then we started pretending that the process was more important than the product. Progressives do this all the time: if you can’t explain how you did it, kid, you didn’t really do it. I know a number of math teachers who will give a higher grade to a student who shows his work and “thinking”, even if the answer is completely inaccurate, and give zero credit to a correct answer by a student who did the work in his head.

Not that any of this matters, really. Reich got it wrong. No big deal. The author of the study did not. She understood the difference between translating a word problem into an equation and getting the correct answer.

But Pershan’s objection—and, for that matter, the Common Core standards themselves—shows how far we’ve gone down the path of explaining failure over the past 30-40 years. We’ve moved from not caring how they defined the problem to grading them on how they defined the problem to creating standards so that now they are evaluated solely on how they define the problem. It’s crazy.

End rant.

Remember, though, we’re talking about the lowest ability kids here. Do they need models, or do they need to know how to find the right answer?