We all understand speed intuitively. Velocity and acceleration are more mathy and harder for many students to comprehend, especially on a graph. Even harder is the idea of when an object is slowing down or speeding up. In this post I attempt to unpack both.
Velocity is speed with a direction. Negative in this case does not indicate a lower value but simply which way an object is traveling (think of backing up). Both cars below are traveling at equivalent speeds.
Velocity can be graphed (the red curve below). Here is information found in the graph.
Where the graph is above the x-axis (positive) the car is traveling to the right. Below is negative which indicates the car is traveling to the left.
The 2 points on the x-axis indicate 0 velocity meaning the car stops (no speed).
The blue lines are tangent lines with slope equal to acceleration (the derivative of velocity). If the line is going down from left to right, the acceleration is negative. Up, positive.
Below is an example of using prior knowledge and visuals to help make sense of speeding up and slowing down.
As stated previously, the points on the x-axis indicate 0 velocity – think STOP sign. When the car is above the x-axis, it has positive velocity. Below, negative. When the car is headed down, the acceleration is negative. Up, positive.
Now for speeding up or slowing down.
Think of a bank account balance.
If you have a positive balance and a transaction that is negative, Your balance is moving towards 0.
Suppose you have a negative balance in your bank account and you have a positive transaction. Your balance is moving towards 0.
As the car moves towards a stop sign it will slow down. The speed is getting closer to 0.
Car at top left has positive velocity and negative acceleration so the change is going opposite of the direction. The car is moving towards 0, like the bank balance analogy.
Car at top left has positive velocity and negative acceleration so the change is going opposite of the direction. The car is moving towards 0.
As the car moves away from a stop sign it speeds up. The speed is moving away from 0.
Positive bank balance, positive transaction means balance is moving away from 0.
Negative bank balance, negative transaction means balance is moving away from 0.
I had an interesting discussion through a Facebook post recently regarding concepts vs skills. I want to share some information I have gathered regarding this topic. I do so, because there were a substantial number of teachers advocating for skill based learning. I hope to initiate some meaningful discussion.
Below left is a photo of an information processing model presented in a graduate level course on learning I took at UCONN. A key element I want to highlight is that information is more effectively processed if the information is meaningful. A theory behind this is Gestalt Theory in which the brain want to make information meaningful or organize it, e.g., the closure model in which our brains complete the triangle in the middle of the circle portions.
The meaning underlying math skills originates in the concepts. Below are the definitions for both, with the concepts being the “how or why” underlying the skills which are the “what to do” part.
I am not arguing that skills are unimportant or that rote practice is wrong. My position is that the concepts should drive the process. Here is a cartoon I think highlights the challenges with students having only skill based knowledge for topics that have important underlying concepts. I witnessed this first hand as a college adjunct instructor and found that a substantial number of students only understood slope by its formula. I also see a substantial number of students receiving special ed services who are taught at a skill level only to allow for progress. Often this is challenging for them when they have working memory or processing issues.
I will summarize in my own words an interpretation an article I read on the definition of Math, which stated there is no singular definition. The following was a theme that appeared to emerge. Math is a set of quantitative related ideas that can help explain the phenomena and the world. The mathematical symbols are used to represent these ideas. There are different ways to represent these ideas, e.g., we represent functions with tables, graphs, and equations. Formal proofs in Western Civilization are not the same a those in the East. Computer based proofs are not fully accepted by many math experts.
Below is a list of some algebra 1 topics and some of the associated concepts. These are largely derived from math sources but include some massaging by me. I am happy to hear the working definitions of others.
In general math is taught by focusing on the steps. Conduct a Google search for solving equations and you will see the steps presented (below). You need a video to help your student understand solving and you typically get a presenter standing at the board talking through the examples. (I’ve posted on my approach to solving equations.)
When the math is taught through the skill approach the student may be able to follow the steps but often does not understand why the steps work (below). The brain wants information to be meaningful in order to process and store it effectively.
To help flesh this situation out consider the definitions of concept and skills (below). Concept: An idea of what something is or how it works – WHY. Skill: “Ability” to execute or perform “tasks” – DOING.
Here is how the concept first approach can play out. One consultation I provided involved an intelligent 10th grader who was perpetually stuck in the basic skills cycle of math (the notion that a student can’t move on without a foundation of basic skills). He was working on worksheet after worksheet on order of operations. I explained down and monthly payments then posed a situation shown at the top of the photo below. I prompted him to figure out the answer on his own. He originally forgot to pay the down-payment but then self-corrected. Then I showed him the “mathy” way of doing the problem. This allowed him to connect the steps in solving with the steps he understood intuitively, e.g. pay the $1,000 down payment first which is why the 1000 is subtracted first. Based on my evaluation the team immediately changed the focus of this math services to support algebra as they realized he was indeed capable of doing higher level math.
Dakota helped her father bake cookies. They baked 9 sugar cookies and 3 chocolate chip cookies. How many cookies did they bake total?
When solving word problem the focus is often on following steps, e.g. read the problem and identify important information. There is also a focus on identifying key words, e.g. “total.” The problem with both is they rely on rote memorization. How do we identify “important” information? Focusing on the word such as total does not address the concept of total but is more of a signaled command like “sit.” Students see “total” and they know they are supposed to add. The problem is they often don’t understand why.
The entry point to word problems should be a focus on the underlying concepts. For example, present the word problem with cutouts of the actual cookies and physically demonstrate “total” by pulling all the cookies together. Similarly, you can have cutouts of the tadpoles and demonstrate the concept of how many are left.
Words are symbolic representations of ideas. Same with math symbols (below). Addressing the concepts, vocabulary and the process with this approach is a concrete-representational-approach (CRA). The equations below would not be addressed until the conceptual understanding was developed. When word problems presented do not include the term “total” the student can process the context as opposed to being reliant on the signal.
Imagine being asked to explain the climate in Spain and the photo above is the resource you had to use. If you didn’t speak Spanish this would be a challenging task for two reasons. First, you may not know the climate so this is new learning. Second, you don’t know the language used to explain the content – a double whammy!
The photo below shows a resource you are more likely to encounter. The language (if you are an English speaker) is natural for you which leaves you to focus on the content alone. Language is a barrier to learning math.
The photo below is an excerpt from “Why Do Some Children Have Difficulty Learning Mathematics? Looking at Language for Answers” by Joseph E. Morin and David J. Franks. It shows another element to the language barrier in learning math. In this example the term over is used to describe the location of the the white square (bottom frame) but the students understand over as a term used in 3-dimensional space (top frame). The misunderstanding of a single term can throw a student totally off in learning a new math topic.
Below is an excerpt from Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers. He explains that the languages of Math and English do not get along very well. “Thirty” has to be translated into the concept of 3 TENS. Compare this to Chinese and Math. The problem in Chinese is read as “three-tens-seven” which is already in Math terms. This extra step of translating is often a problem for our students, especially those with special needs.
In teaching math the issue of the language of Math is an additional issue to address separately. I teach students to learn math in their own language (informal English, using manipulatives etc.) and after the concept is learned I show students the “mathy” way of talking about it. This follows the Concrete-Representation-Abstract (CRA) approach to presenting math.