Wednesday, April 29, 2015

[Pri20150429PPP] Pythagoras for Primary Pupils?


     This primary (elementary) school mathematics examination question created quite a stir among some parent support groups on Facebook.  The issue is that the height of the triangle seems to have been omitted.

Pythagoras’ Theorem
     Some participants who know secondary school mathematics were quick to suggest the use of Pythagoras’ Theorem to find the height of the triangle, which works out to be  12 cm.  This leads to the answer (2) 114 cm2,  which is correct.  The problem is that pupils are not taught Pythagoras’ Theorem until secondary school, and so it would seem an unfair test for the pupils.  So the discussion turned to thinking of various methods by which a primary school pupil may uncover the answer without resorting to advanced knowledge.

Elimination and Educated Guessing
     Mr Teo Kai Meng, a tutor who regularly participates in the support groups, offered some insightful observations.  Assuming that the height measurement is a whole number of centimetres, only options (2) and (4) need to be considered as they were divisible by  19, which the area had to be under the said assumption.  [ Another tutor, Melissa Song had a similar idea by observing that since the triangles DKLN and DKMN  have the same height, the ratio of their areas is the ratio of their bases LN : MN = 19 : 16. ]  We can ignore choices (1) and (3).  As we know,  area = ½ ´ base ´ height .  Since teachers like to catch students for being careless in forgetting to multiply by ½  (or dividing by 2), it is quite likely that option (4) was set up as a booby trap.  Thus one may intelligently surmise that option (2) should be the answer.

     Mr K L Chua, a tutor who calls himself “Mathematics Specialist”, used a similar reasoning.  He worked backwards from each of the four choices to get the heights and chose the most plausible answer.  Of the two whole-number answers, (4) was eliminated and (2) was chosen since from the diagram the height should roughly be near to  16 cm  even though the diagram was not drawn to scale.

Scale Drawing

     Another participant suggested doing a scale drawing to estimate the height.  Indeed this can be done, and is a good tactic too, since this could be done quickly with a ruler and pencil.

A Visual Solution
     Assuming no knowledge of Pythagoras’ Theorem, it is possible to construct a visual solution.  First we take four copies (indicated in orange/light-orange) of the right-angled triangle  DLNK  and arrange them to surround a square of side  37  cm (indicated in green),  which is the same as the longest side (hypotenuse) of the said triangle.     This green area is  1 369 cm2.  Now we rearrange the triangular pieces as indicated by the red arrows.  The areas of the orangey triangles do not change when you shift them.  Neither will the green area change, since the total area everything in the containing square (orangey plus green areas) remains the same.

With pairs of right-angled triangles joined together along their longest sides, we now obtain two green squares, the larger of which has side  35 cm.  This gives an area of  1 225 cm2.  The total area of the two green squares is the same as the area of the large green sqaure before the shifting, namely  1 369 cm2.  Hence the area of the small square is  (1 369 – 1 225) cm2 = 144 cm2.

From here we quickly deduce that the unknown height is  12 cm,  12 being the square root of  144.  Hence we conclude that the area of  DKLM  is  114 cm2.

     I have shown that it is theoretically possible for primary school pupils without knowledge of Pythagoras’ Theorem to derive the answer in an exact manner.  By the way, the method of shifting triangular pieces as indicated above can be generalised to give a proof of Pythagoras’ Theorem.
     Some parents expressed fear that this is another one of those Cheryl-like or olympiad type of problems.  Is there a conspiracy by the school teachers to purposely set difficult questions and make life difficult for pupils, disadvantaging those who cannot afford private tutors?  In this case, could this just have been an oversight on the part of the teacher who set the question?
     Entrepreneur John Low Jiayong and tutor John Lim sourced for and managed to obtain faithful copies of the original question.  It turned out that some school-paper vendors had inadvertently erased the 12 cm measurement.  Thus in the original question, the height  KN  was given as 12 cm, and the measurement of  37 cm for the hypothenuse  LK  was purposely given as extraneous information to distract students.
     Some parents observed that this is after all just a multiple-choice question that carries a credit of only one mark.  If this were an exam situation with the  12 cm omitted, it would be best to either sacrifice the  1  mark and move on, or to use tactics like elimination, educated guessing or estimation with scale drawing.
     Anyway, it had been quite a fruitful discussion, as adults (parents and tutors) attacked this problem from many angles in a purposeful way.  Many parties put in concerted effort and contributed in an engaged matter.  It would be good if this type of rich discussion were enacted in our classrooms everyday among pupils and teachers, perhaps enabled by social technology.  For then, pupils would deeply learn and perhaps would not be so stressed out, nor be needing so much extra external help.  Private tutors could then move on to focus on value-added  mentorship  for 21st Century Learning, instead picking up the tab where school teachers have left off.

H01. Act it out (e.g. scale drawing)
         (as a class learning activity, pupils can use scissors to cut out paper triangles
          and physically move them around)
H02. Use a diagram / model
H04. Look for pattern(s)
H05. Work backwards
H07. Use guess and check
H08. Make suppositions
H09. Restate the problem in another way

Suitable Levels
Primary School Mathematics
Lower Secondary Mathematics
* any precocious / gifted pupil who wants to learn
* any person of any age interested in creative problem solving

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