# Tag Archives: unit circle

## Memorization or Learning?

I originally started to write a post on a memorization technique I’m using for the unit circle, and went looking for representative jeremiads both pro and con. Instead, I found Ben Orlin’s piece When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning (from five years back):

…which is the opposite of a standard, boring piece and serves as a good counterpoint to explain some recent shifts in my pedagogy.

It’s a good piece. In many ways, the debate about memorization runs parallel to the zombie problem–students regurgitate facts without understanding. Ben’s against that. Me, too. Ben says that testing requirements create tensions between authentic learning and manageable tests; I have various means of ensuring my students understand the math rather than just hork it up like furballs of unknown origin, so am less concerned on that point.

But I don’t agree with this sentiment as much as I probably did a decade ago: Memorizing a list of prepositions isn’t half as useful as knowing what role a preposition plays in the language.

Not in math, anyway.

A couple years ago, after I’d taught trigonometry two or three times, I suddenly noticed that at the end of the year, my students were very fuzzy on their unit circle knowledge. (It’s no coincidence that Ben’s article and my observations are both focused on trigonometry, a branch of math with a significant fact base.) When working trig equations, they’d factor something like the equation above, use the Zero Product Property, solve for sin(x)…and then stop.

“You’re not done,” I’d point out. You’ve only solved for sin(x). What is the value of x?”

Shrug. No recognition. My tests are cumulative. Many students showed significant recall of concepts. They were using ratios to solve complex applications; they were sketching angles on the coordinate plane–both concepts we hadn’t revisited in months. They could sketch the unit circle from memory and eventually figure out the answer. But they had no automatic memories of the unit circle working backwards and forwards, even though I had emphasized the importance of memorizing it.

Upsetting, particularly at the end of the year. The name of the class is Trigonometry, after all. Solving for sin(x) requires not one tiny bit of trig. It’s all algebra. Trigonometry enters the picture when you ask yourself what angle, in radians or degrees, has a y to r ratio of 1 to 2.

The sine of π/2 is not among [the important things to memorize]. It’s a fact that matters only insofar as it connects to other ideas. To learn it in isolation is like learning the sentence “Hamlet kills Claudius” without the faintest idea of who either gentleman is–or, for what matter, of what “kill” means.

Well, okay, but….if a student in a Trig class can’t work a basic equation without a cheat sheet, what exactly has he learned? He already knew the algebra. Does the same standard hold for SOHCAHTOA, or can I still assume the student has successfully learned something if he needs a memory aid to remember what triangle sides constitute the sine ratio? What else can be on the cheat sheet: the Pythagorean Theorem? The ratios of the special rights?

Ben describes memorization as learning an isolated fact through deliberate effort, either through raw rehearsal or mnemonics, both of which he believes are mere substitutions for authentic learning. He argues for building knowledge through repeated use.

Sure. But that road is a hard one. And as Ben knows much better than I, the more advanced math gets, the more complex and numerous the steps get. Most students won’t even bother. Those who care about their grades but not the learning will take the easier, if meaningless route of raw rehearsal.

So how do you stop students from either checking out or taking the wrong road to zombiedom?

I’ve never told my students that memorization was irrelevant, but rather that I had a pretty small list of essential facts. Like Ben, I think useful memorization comes with repeated use and understanding. But what if repeated use isn’t happening in part because of the pause that occurs when memory should kick in?

So I’ve started to focus in on essential facts and encouraged them to memorize with understanding. Not rote memorization. But some math topics do have a fact base, or even just a long procedural sequence, that represent a significant cognitive load, and what is memorization but a way of relieving that load?

The trick lies in making the memorization mean something. So, for example, when I teach the structure of a parabolas, I first give the kids a chance to understand the structure through brief discovery. Then we go through the steps to graph a parabola in standard form. Then I repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. So by the time of the first quiz, any student who blanks out, I say “Rate of Change?” and they reflexively look for the b parameter and divide by 2. Most of them have already written the sequence on their page. The memorization of the sequence allows them repeated practice.

But it’s not mindless memorization, either. Ask them what I mean by “Rate of Change”, they’d say “the slope between the y-intercept and the vertex”. They don’t know all the details of the proof, but they understand the basics.

I take the same approach in parent function transformations, after realizing that a third of any class had drawn parent functions for days without ever bothering to associate one graph’s shape with an equation. So I trained them to create “stick figures” of each graph:

I drew this freehand in Powerpoint, but it’s about the same degree of sloppiness that I encourage for stick figures. They aren’t meant to be perfect. They’re just memory spurs. Since I began using them a year ago, all my students can produce the stick figures and remind themselves what graph to draw. They know that each of the functions is committed on a line (to various degrees). Most of them understand, (some only vaguely), why a reciprocal function has asymptotes and why square root functions go in only one direction.

So did they learn, or did they memorize?

I haven’t changed my views on conceptual learning. I believe “why” is essential. I’m not power pointing my way through procedures. I am just realizing, with more experience, that many of my students won’t be able to use facts and procedures without being forced to memorize, and it is through that memorization that they become fluid enough to become capable of repeated use.

Like Ben, I think a zombie student with no idea that cosine is a ratio, but knows that cos(0) = 1, has failed to learn math. I just don’t think that student is any worse than one who looks at you blankly and has no answer at all. And addressing the needs of both these students may, in fact, be more memorization. Both types of students are avoiding authentic understanding. It’s our job to help them find it.

So I’ll give an example of that in my next post.

## Teaching with Indirection

Technology is a great illustrator and indispensable for presentation. But as a student tool? Eh, not so much. Certainly not laptops.   I found laptops very useful in my history class, but primarily as a delivery and retrieval mechanism, or for their own presentations.  I haven’t found that a compelling reason to submit to the logistics of handing out and collecting laptops. But then, I’m a Luddite on this.  Recently, some colleagues were jazzed with several thousand dollars of cool science tools which I oohed and ahhed over politely. But….? Basically data collection. Fast data collection, which the students can analyze.  I guess. I don’t really do science.

A couple months ago, I used laptops and Desmos to teach transformations, and after two blocks that went….well, I suppose, I used whiteboards to do the same lesson in the last block. Far superior. I wouldn’t have even considered the hassle, but last year the school decided all algebra 2 teachers warranted a laptop cart and I want to occasionally acknowledge a gift intended to be useful. I would never–I mean no excuses never–book a laptop cart from the library to teach a lesson. But if it’s sitting around my classroom, I’m bound to try and find a way to use it. Still, even if I had a lesson that would be guaranteed superior to the same lesson on paper, I’d be tough to convince. Taking them out and putting them away takes up close to 15 minutes of classtime. Wasted. If all of my students had their laptops with them at every minute, waiting to be used….maybe. I’ve certainly found uses for phones on an occasional basis. But it’s not a huge gap I’m longing to fill.

Teaching is performance art. Sometimes the art lies in holding students’ attention directly, taking them point by point through a new topic. Other times, it lies in making them do the work. In both cases, the art lies in the method of revealing, of making them come along for the ride of understanding–even if it’s just in that moment.

It’s hard to do that if you put technology in the students’ hands. First, they’re too easily distracted. Second, it’s too easy to do without understanding.  A colleague of mine simply worships Dan Meyer, and loves all the Desmos activities.  They are neat. Without question or caveat. But I have limited time, and I’d rather have my students doing math directly, by hand even, than have them work on laptops or phones. Some Desmos activities do, absolutely, require the kids to work or show their math directly. Others are an interesting form of guess and check, designed (hopefully) to help kids understand patterns. The first, I like, but am unconvinced that the time and distraction suck are an improvement over handwritten work. The second, no. Not generally interested unless I have time for games, and I don’t.

This piece is only partially about technology, though. I wanted to talk about designing experiences, and for me, technology doesn’t give me the freedom to do that. Not with my kids, ability levels, and existing technology, anyway.

But how can I claim that technology is a distraction if I’m busy performing for the students?

Well, recall I said it was great for illustration and presentation. I love my smartboard, although I move pretty effortlessly between smartboards and whiteboard walls.

I have learned it’s very simple to screw up a lesson by speeding it up, but far more difficult to do slowing it down. I like introducing a topic, sometimes in a roundabout way, and having the students do the work alongside. Consider the example displayed here. These aren’t power points of my lecture. I start with a blank screen. I give the instructions, give the kids time to follow along, then use their input to make my own diagram. That way I can circle around, see that everyone’s on track, understanding the math, seeing connections.

I spend a great deal of time looking for ways to build instruction step by step, so that the vast majority of my students have no reason to refuse the effort. Draw a square. How hard is that? Besides, most of them enjoy drawing and sketching, and this beats posters.

Ideally, I don’t want them to see where we’re going. But then, remember I’m teaching advanced high school math. At various times, I want students to understand that math discoveries don’t always go where they were expected. The best way to do that, in my experience, is give them a situation and point out obvious things that connect in not so obvious ways.

Thus, a trigonometry class is a great place to start an activity that begins as a weird way of breaking up a square into similar triangles. The sketches in the first steps are just a way to get them started, suspend their disbelief.  The real application of knowledge begins at this step, as they identify the equivalent ratios for the different triangles. A geometry-level skill, one from two years ago, and one we try to beat into their heads. Proportionality, setting up cross products, is also something students have been taught consistently.  A trig class is going to have a pretty high percentage of functional students who remember a lot of what they’ve been taught a lot.

Which is important, because this sort of activity has to be paced properly. You have to have a number of pauses while students work independently. The pauses can’t be too short–you have to have time to wander around and explain–but not explain everything to everyone, which would take too long and kill the mood. Can’t be too fast, either, or why bother?

Ideally, students should be mildly mystified, but willing to play along. As I wrote several years ago, start slow, build student trust in your wild notions. If you keep them successful and interested, they’ll follow along working “blind”, applying their existing knowledge without complaint. Don’t deliver and they won’t follow. Which is why it’s important to start slow.

So in this particular activity, the students drew a square, some triangles, and found ratios without knowing when, or if, this was going to relate to trigonometry. Now, finally, they are using class-related knowledge, although SOHCAHTOA is technically covered in geometry and only reviewed in the early months of the year. But at least it does have something to do with Trig.

I’ve only done this once, but I was surprised and fascinated to note that some students were annoyed that I reminded them about the 1 unit substitution after they’d built the proportion statements.  I liked the structured approach of two distinct moves. They didn’t. “Why you make us do this twice?” griped Jamal, who is better at math than you might expect from his pants, defying gravity far south of his pelvis, much less his perpetually red-eyed stupor and speech patterns. (“He’s a c**n,” he informed me about a friend a month ago. I stared at him. “It’s okay. I’m half c**n, so I can say  that.  Like, my family, we all light-skinned but we c**ns.” I stared at him. “OK, I ain’t no c**n in your class.” I mentioned the discussion to an admin later, suggesting perhaps Jamal needed to be told that c**n isn’t n****r , and is an insult in any vernacular. “C**n?” she said, puzzled.  “Like….raccoon?” It took me a few minutes to realize that she was a Hispanic, so it was indeed possible she had no idea what the word meant. I should have gone to our African American admin.)

It’s not obvious to all students that the ratio labeling each triangle side is the length of that side. That is, if the base is one, then the length of the secant line will be the exact value of the secant ratio, and so on. Breaking the diagram into three distinct triangles helps, but I do recommend spending some time on this point.

So, for example, say if the angle is 30 degrees, what length would the side labeled sine be? What about cotangent? They already know about sine and cosine lengths, since I introduce this after we’ve covered the basics of the unit circle. But it helps to prod them into realizing that the cosecant length would be 2 units, and so on.

My students are familiar with my term “mother ship”. I use it in a number of contexts, but none so commonly as the Pythagorean Theorem. I ask them if they’ve seen Independence Day,  or one of the other zillions of alien invasion flicks in which the little independent saucers  all go back to the big behemoth. Because aliens will centralize, else how could humans emerge victorious? Just as all these little buzzing pods lead back to the big one, so too do so many ideas lead back to Pythagorean. Even its gaps. The Pythagorean Theorem doesn’t do angles, I point out. That’s why we started using trigonometry to solve for sides of right triangles. Originally, trigonometry was developed thousands of years ago to explain planetary motion, and was defined entirely in terms of spheres and chords. Not until Copernicus, a few hundred years ago, did we start to define trigonometry primarily in terms of right triangles.

Until this activity, I’d always taught the Pythagorean identities algebraically. I start, as many do, by reminding or introducing them to the equation for a circle, then talk about a radius of one, and so on. Then I derive the secant/tangent and cosecant/cotangent versions, which is pretty simple.

But I really like the geometric representation. The three triangles are spatial, physical artifacts of what is otherwise a very abstract concept. Ultimately, of course, these identities are used for very abstract purposes, but whenever possible, links to the concrete are welcome.

Besides, isn’t it cool that the three triangles reflect what the algebra shows? I suppose the fact that the triangles are all similar plays into it, but I’m not enough of a mathie to grasp that intuitively. The students, of course, don’t yet know the algebra. The Pythagorean identities are the one new fact set this lesson delivers.

Remember, I don’t use these images you see here in the lesson; rather, they represent a combination of what I say and draw during the lesson, pausing as the students work things out themselves.  Could I do this with technology? Sure. Could they? In my opinion, no. But it’s debatable, certainly. BUT–I also couldn’t do this with a book.
Is it just me, or do students take an absurdly long time, over many lessons and with many reminders,  to memorize the unit circle? I mean, my god, there are five values for each ratio. They go in order–big to small, small to big. How hard could it be? But after a couple years of students looking at me blankly at the end of the term when asked what the sine of pi over 6 is, I’ve learned to beat it into their heads. Some teachers never use the unit circle to teach ratios. I do not understand this. Steve teaches it all with co-functions and trig tables; I have taught any number of his students who know vaguely what it is, but have no conceptual understanding of it. They know the values, their operational ability is no different, but where’s the fun? The unit circle is an amazing entity.

I am a big fan of Desmos. At algebra 2 and higher, I ask my students to download the Desmos app. My students learn how to graph, how to create functions, how to explore functions. I want them to know Demos as a tool when it makes sense. Really.

So eventually–although I haven’t done it yet–I’m going to show my students this puny effort to automate the concepts we explored manually in this lesson.  Hey, I can use the laptops! It will be a great example of inverse calls.

But not right away. Look, my classes do a lot of repetition.  Plenty of worked problems. It’s not all discovery or exploration–in fact, relatively little time is spent on these. My students need to know how, building capacity. Why is the glue. The better a student is at the basics of math, the more important it is to smack them around with why, occasionally.

But I’m a performer.  English teachers talk about grabbing up front with the hook. But in math, ending big, revealing the path they’ve been wandering, is my goal. So when I draw in the circle, put in the coordinates, and hear “Holy sh**!” and various stunned gasps, following by a smattering of applause, I know my planning paid off.

“The f***? Damn. This been the unit circle all along. Shee-it.” That would be Jamal.