# ZeroSum Ruler (home)

## Blogging on math education and other related things

### calculators KILL negatives! (uh, raised to even exponents, that is:)May 17, 2010

What’s negative 2 to the fourth power?  16?  -16?  If you put “-2^4″ into the TI-83, you get -16.  But we know that (-2)(-2) = 4 and (-2)(-2) = 4, and (4)(4) = 16.  So why does the calculator give us -16?

This post is no doubt for the high schooler and not for someone addicted to the )( buttons on the calculator like I am.  I parenthesize.  It comes from a fear that something will go negative that should be positive.  I have reminded my students more times than I can count to parenthesize, so many times, in fact, that I am more than sure that most tune me out as soon as they hear the first syllable.  But still the negative raised to an even number sneaks past the best of ‘em.

The evil negative base reared its ugly head again today when I graded papers on the geometric sequence an = a1 • r^(n-1) where:

an = the value of the nth term

a1 = first term’s value

r = ratio of change (ie “doubling” would be 2)

n = the terms placement (ie: 5th term would be n = 5)

“Find a7 if a1 = 5 and r = -2.”  The answer I or course got more than the correct answer was ” -320″.  What should the answer be?  “320″.  The problem should be written out first as: 5(-2)^(7-1) to make the process clear.

At least no one gave -1,000,000 as an answer.  There’s still hope!

### overkilling negatives?May 8, 2010

I know the ruler seems a bit overkill for a simple subject like adding positives and negatives, but I teach 11th grade in Boston and it’s the biggest stumbling block for even my students taking my advanced algebra class.

The problem is that kids are taught a “noun-verb” way of solving problems like “-12 + 7″. They are told to find -12 (noun, static number) and count up 7 spaces (verb, movement) to the right to see what number they land on. This is fine in a classroom with a number line taped to the desk, but it doesn’t teach the kids how to think about the numbers and a lot of kids will get this problem, and ones like it, wrong. It only gets worse with “x + 12 = 7 (solve for x)” or “y + 12x = 7x + 3 (solve for y)”. It’s the same problem over and over again, just disguised.

The problem with the number line and the “noun-verb” way of solving is that it’s not the way we think. It’s not even the way we are taught in school to solve these problems. In the Boston 7th grade curriculum is a book called “Accentuate the Negative” where the very first page of text has a caption over a kid’s head that reads something along the lines of “I owe my dad \$4. I have -\$4″. So this business of “owing” comes into play very early.

If I owed you \$12 (-12) and I only paid you back 7 (+7), how much would I still owe you? Asked like this, it’s a simple problem. You’d count up from 7 until you got to 12, knowing that the answer would be in “owe”, or negative. In school however, the kids are told to start at -12 and count up 7 spaces. This is completely backwards from how we think.

So to get to my ruler…. The ZeroSum ruler allows a kid to find -12, find 7, fold the ruler in half and count the space between the two numbers’ absolute values. This is what we do when we are finding out how much someone owes us, and this is really the way we think. In time, and to answer your question about what a kid would do with numbers beyond -25 and +25, a kid would start to see the relationship between positives and negatives and that if you “owe” more than you “pay” (if the negative is further away from break even (zero) than the positive) then the answer will take a negative sign. But it’s really the space between the absolute values we are counting.

### So, how much do I owe you?April 19, 2010

You friend borrows \$22 from you.  He pays you back \$15 the next day.  How much does he still owe you?  Asked this way, it’s obvious he owes you \$7.  But give a kid the problem -22 + 15, and the answer mysteriously becomes, well, mysterious.

WHY?

My students can certainly tell me how much I would still owe if I borrowed \$22 and paid just \$15 back. Like us, they’d probably count up from 15 to get to 22. But give a student the problem “-22 + 15″, and all bets are off.

For this number sentence, we are taught in school to find “-22″ on a number line and count to the right 15 spaces to find the number we land on. But this is not what we do in real life to find out how much someone still owes. There is a huge disconnect here.  In real life, we count up from 15 to 22, keeping a tally on our fingers of how many numbers we pass by.  We would never count up 15 from -22 to find how much someone owes us!  It’s no wonder students have difficulty with negative numbers with the way we are taught!

To plug my product, the ZeroSum ruler allows a student to count the spaces from 15 to -22 by folding the ruler in half at the pivot and counting from 15 to +22. When the positives are aligned with their negatives, they’re essentially finding the difference between the absolute values of -22 and 15.  This is the way we think and therefore a more natural way to learn.