Visual Algebra?

In recent discussion about Bret Victor’s Kill Math project Ben Blum-Smith brought up the books Visual Complex Analysis and Visual Group Theory which as he puts it “all arguments are geometric and illustrated by diagrams”. (I’m not familiar with the latter, but Visual Complex Analysis is fantastic and I highly recommend it.)

I feel like these sorts of books will eventually create a revolution in upper-level mathematics — I’m eagerly awaiting someone to write Visual Linear Algebra — but could we re-conceive lower level mathematics in the same way?

By Visual Algebra I’m not meaning graphs, I’m meaning the more mundane symbolic “solve for x” manipulation.

Solve for x: 2x + 3 = 5.

In the same vein as my puzzle equivalent to solving a quadratic, solid lines mean multiply, dotted lines mean add.

Solving for the highlighted circle is equivalent to solving for x in 2x + 3 = 5.

(I swear I have seen something closely resembling this elsewhere for equations, and I think it even has a buzzword attached — anyone know?)

I originally thought of these sorts of puzzles as a gentle introduction to the topic, but would it be possible to integrate this kind of visual-symbolic thinking in every part of an algebra course?

ADD: Here’s an image where the puzzle is closer in look to the equation:

This sort of thing is risky because rather than applying inverses and so forth students may make it a general method to draw circles and arrows everywhere.


11 Responses

  1. The three-page thingy I made up last year included a number of examples that were either “solve for x”, or two or more variables.

    What struck me about using these a dozen or so times is the blatantly fantastic success rate. Kids not only could figure out what the problem required, but they weren’t intimidated by it and so they just dove in thinking and came out victorious. This included a room of “Essentials” streamed kids (ie. the lower achievers); some of them didn’t bother, but a number of them ended up doing the equivalent of factoring trinomials in the space of 20 min or so.

    So, yeah, I’m tempted to integrate these more generally into teaching as a visualization tool too, but I dunno how far I’d take it. At some point they don’t scale well and they turn into a mess, but if you’re using them as a scaffold to understanding the symbolic algebra then that shouldn’t be a problem.

    Also, I have *no* idea how well students would fare at actually creating these graphs themselves based on some reality-based problem.

  2. […] highlighted circle &#1110&#1109 corresponding t&#959 solving f&#959r x &#1110n 2x + 3 = 5. More: Visual Algebra? « Th&#1077 Number Warrior #dd_ajax_float{ background:none repeat scroll 0 0 #eaeae3; border:1px solid #eaeae3; float:left; […]

  3. […] 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 […]

  4. I’m working on Visual Algebra — but I’m going to attempt to make it visual and reasonably concrete (as opposed to using prettier symbols).
    I think there’s a risk of having short-term success in teaching methods that involve havingt things look and feel right as well as make math sense, if the math sense part doesn’t happen. I have lots of students who will gleefully change mixed numbers into improper fractions — because they remember the “dance” of the pencil. They’ll still say 1/2 + 1/3 is 2/6, though…

  5. On one of these pages you showed 2 bricks, then 4 stacked and connected it to the mathematical teaching. This is a huge method for teaching math challenged students. When I teach visually, the become mathematical sponges. PLEASE continue with your project. Even if the more difficult aspects of, say Algebra I, the visual foundation you are presenting, I think, would be enough of a sound basis to get them to be interested in the solutions of problems.

  6. […] I theorized a book called Visual Algebra it was non-obvious what such a beast would look like; perhaps this prototype from my work in […]

  7. […] – I’ve been thinking about Jason Dyer’s ideas on Visual Algebra – in particular, the representation of an equation as a bunch of boxes that […]

  8. I think it’s been done before –

  9. […] 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 […]

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