Truth and consequences: talking about solving equations

The language we use when we talk about solving equations can be a bit of a minefield. It seems obvious to talk about an equation such as $3x + 2 = x + 5$ as saying that $3x+2$ is equal to $x + 5$, and that’s probably a good place to start. But there is a hidden assumption in there that the equation is true. In the Illustrative Mathematics middle school curriculum coming out this month we start students out with hanger diagrams to represent such equations:

The fact that the hanger is balanced embodies the hidden assumption that the equation is true. It is helpful for explaining why you have to perform the same operation on each side when solving equations; if you take two triangles from the left side you have to take two triangles from the right side as well in order to preserve the balance. This leads to a discussion of how performing the same operation on each side of an equation preserves the truth of the equal sign.

But what happens with an equation like $3x + 2 = 3x + 5$? In this case, the hanger diagram is a physical impossibility: the right hand side will always be heavier than the left hand side. I can imagine that students who have an idea of an equation as “the left hand side is equal to the right hand side” might be confused by this situation, and think this is not a proper equation. Especially when they reduce it to $2 = 5$. Students learn to say that this means there are no solutions, but it’s hard to make sense of that response rule without understanding what’s really going on with equations.

The fact is, an equation with a variable in it is neither true nor false, because it is merely a phrase in a longer sentence, such as “If $3x + 2 = x + 5$ then $x = \frac32$.” This sentence is true, but the phrases within it are not sentences and have no inherent truth or falsity. When we perform the same operation on each side of an equation, we are not only preserving the truth of the equal sign but also preserving the consequences of the equal sign. If we use if-then language when talking about equations, then we can make sense of equations with no solutions. A sentence like “If $x$ is a number satisfying $3x + 2 = 3x + 5$ then $2 = 5$” makes perfect sense. It’s the mathematical equivalent of “If the moon is green cheese, then I’m a monkey’s uncle.” It’s a way of saying the moon is not green cheese . . . or that there is no solution to the equation.

The middle schooler’s version of if-then language might not always use the words “if” and “then.” You might say “Imagine there is a number $x$ such that $3x + 2 = x + 5$. What can you say about $x$?” Just as you say “Imagine this hanger is balanced and the green triangles weigh one gram. How much do the blue squares weigh?” I think it’s a useful approach with students to remember that equations are a matter not just of truth, but of truth and consequences.

Talking about fractions, decimals, and numbers

When students first learn about fractions, we want them to learn that they are just numbers; new numbers, but numbers nonetheless, that fit into the same system as the whole numbers they are familiar with. The number line can help with this, with whole numbers and fractions sitting together, and located in essentially the same way; choose a unit (1, 1/3, 1/10) and then count off a number of those units. It also helps students understand that equivalent fractions are just different ways of writing the same number. When (finite) decimals come along, they get added to the list of representations.

The Common Core emphasizes this unity by treating decimals as just a different way of writing fractions, e.g. in 4.NF.C: “Understand decimal notation for fractions, and compare decimal fractions.” In this view, 0.3 is not a new sort of number, just a different way of writing the number 3/10.

This leads to some difficulties in the use of language, because at some points in the curriculum you do want to distinguish between decimals and fractions, for example when you ask a student to write 4/5 as a decimal or to write 0.125 as a fraction. (“You told me it’s already a fraction!” the smart student might reply.)

The IM curriculum writing team was talking about these difficulties the other day and Cathy Kessel had a useful comment:

There’s a developmental issue. When fractions are introduced, the distinction between number represented and representation is blurred, and similarly for decimals (finite, then repeating). But, when the two types of representations are seen as representing the same thing, then the thing and its representations start to separate more.

Because we want students to develop a conception of the number behind the representation, we start out saying decimals are also fractions. Later we build a negative addition to the number line and add the opposites of fractions. Once we have a robust conception of the number line, inhabited by rational numbers, we want to talk about different ways of expressing those numbers: fractions, decimals, infinite decimals, expressions involving square root symbols and exponents. So we start to distinguish between fractions and decimals, not as numbers, but as forms for expressing numbers. We initially suppress their role as forms in order to gain a robust conception of number; once they are firmly attached to that conception we can distinguish between them.

They only way to do this without giving multiple meanings to the same words would be to invent new words and be consistent in their use. This harks back to the distinction between “numeral” and “number” in the New Math, which didn’t take hold.