Tuesday, May 20, 2014

It's hard to solve the triangle if you don't know what a "guy wire" is.

Happily all of my students currently studying trigonometry know that one would find a shadow on the ground, and all of them know how a kite works!  However, I did have to tell three students in a row what a "guy wire" is.

I'm not sure how we should be trying to address this problem.  On the one hand, we don't want a student who knows how to solve a triangle to miss the question because he doesn't know a non-math vocabulary word.  (And what about the ESL kids?) One solution might be to provide a labeled diagram with each question.  However, many would argue that being able to model the problem involves the student drawing his own diagram. Is there even a description of a guy wire that doesn't essentially tell the student how to draw the diagram?  And if we restrict ourselves to vocabulary that was used for examples in class, then how do we ever present a student with a novel problem?

The fact is that a word problem has to be about something.  And if the student has no experience with that "something" then it's a lot harder to work the problem.

(For more context, see this earlier post.)

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