- An expression such as $latex 4(x-2)=6$ has an invisible abstract structure. In this simple case it is
By the time students take calculus they supposedly have learned to perceive and work with this invisible structure, but many of them still struggle with it. They have a lot of trouble with more complex expressions, but even something like $latex \sin x + y$ gives some of them trouble.
Make the invisible visible
The tree expression makes the invisible structure explicit. Some math educators such as Jason Dyer and Bret Victor have experimented with the idea of students working directly with a structured form of an algebraic expression, including making the structured form interactive.
How could the tree structure be used to help struggling algebra students?
1) If they are learning on the computer, the program could provide the tree structure at the push of a button. Lessons could be designed to present algebraic expressions that look similar but have different structure.
2) You could point out things such as:
a) “inside the parentheses pushes it lower in the tree”
b) “lower in the tree means it is calculated earlier”
3) More radically, you could teach algebra directly using the tree structure, with the intention of introducing the expression-as-a-string form later. This is analogous to the use of the initial teaching alphabet for beginners at reading, and also the use of shape notes to teach sight reading of music for singing. Both of these methods have been shown to help beginners, but the ITA didn’t catch on and although lots of people still sing from shape notes (See Note 1) they are not as far as I know used for teaching in school.
4) You could produce an interactive form of the structure tree that the student could use to find the value or solve the equation. But that needs a section to itself.
When I discovered the TreeForm command in Mathematica (which I used to make the trees above), I was inspired to use it and the Manipulate command to make the tree interactive.
This is a screenshot of what Mathematica shows you. When this is running in Mathematica, moving the slide back and forth causes the dependent values in the tree also change, and when you slide to 3.5, the slot corresponding to $latex 4(x-2)$ becomes 6 and the slot over “Equals” becomes “True”:
As seen in this post, these are just screen shots that you can’t manipulate. The Mathematica notebook Expressions.nb gives the code for this and lets you experiment with it. If you don’t have Mathematica available to you, you can still manipulate the tree with the slider if you download the CDF form of the notebook and open it in Mathematica CDF Player, which is available free here. The abstractmath website has other notebooks you may want to look at as well.
Moving the slider back and forth constitutes finding the correct value of x by experiment. This is a peculiar form of bottom-up evaluation. With an expression whose root node is a value rather than an equation, wiggling the slider constitutes calculating various values with all the intermediate steps shown as you move it. Bret Victor ‘s blog shows a similar system, though not showing the tree.
Another way to use the tree is to arrange to show it with the calculated values blank. (The constants and the labels showing the operation would remain.) The student could start at the top blank space (over Times) and put in the required value, which would obviously have to be 6 to make the space over Equals change to “True”. Then the blank space over Plus would have to be 1.5 in order to make multiplying it by 4 be 6. Then the bottom left blank space would have to be 3.5 to make it equal to 1.5 when -2 is added. This is top down evaluation.
You could have the student enter these numbers in the blank spaces on the computer or print out the tree with blank spaces and have them do it with a pencil. Jason Dyer’s blog has examples.
My example code in the notebook is a kludge. If you defined a special VertexRenderingFunction for TreeForm in Mathematica, you could create a function that would turn any algebraic expression into a manipulatable tree with a slider like the one above (or one with blank spaces to be filled in). [Note 2]. I expect I will work on that some time soon but my main desire in this series of blog posts is to through out ideas with some Mathematica code attached that others might want to develop further. You are free to reuse all the Mathematica code and all my blog posts under the Creative Commons Attribution – ShareAlike 3.0 License. I would like to encourage this kind of open-source behavior.
1. Including me every Tuesday at 5:30 pm in Minneapolis (commercial).
2. There is a problem with Equals. In the hacked example above I set the increment the value jumps by when the slider is moved to 0.1, so that the correct value 3.5 occurs when you slide. If you had an equation with an irrational root this would not work. One thing that should work is to introduce a fuzzy form of Equals with the slide-increment smaller that the latitude allowed in the fuzzy Equals.