Thursday, February 13, 2014

Math problem of the week: Disentanglement Puzzles

Earlier, I blogged about how you make math fun not by making math more like art or dance, but through actual math problems that scratch the puzzle-solving itch. And one of the key puzzle-solving strategies I mentioned was simplification. Something looks horribly messy, like one of those disentanglement puzzles:

And your job is to figure out a clever way to simplify it. It might be a tremendous struggle, but when you figure it out, there's an equally tremendous satisfaction. And a confidence-boosting sense of your own cleverness.

But for simplification, you need complication. And for complication, you need harder math than many kids are exposed to, which in turn would require unfashionable drills in calculation and symbolic manipulation. So puzzle math (along with all the special satisfaction and feelings of cleverness) is a vanishing treat.

...Except if you’re home schooling and have the luxury of going back in time, say, to 1900s math. Here are some simplification problems my daughter has been working on this week:

While non-mathematical disentanglement puzzles are alive and while, nowhere in America’s contemporary Reform Math Algebra texts do we find any mathematical disentanglement puzzles approaching this level of complexity.

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