For questions related to the teaching and learning of mathematics. Note that Mathematics Educators StackExchange may be a better home for narrowly scoped questions on specific issues in mathematics education.

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594
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48answers
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Visually stunning math concepts which are easy to explain [closed]

Since I'm not that good at (as I like to call it) 'die-hard-mathematics', I've always liked concepts like the golden ratio or the dragon curve, which are easy to understand and explain, but are ...
553
votes
153answers
34k views

What was the first bit of mathematics that made you realize that math is beautiful? (For children's book)

I'm a children's book writer and illustrator, and I want to to create a book for young readers that exposes the beauty of mathematics. I recently read Paul Lockhart's essay "The Mathematician's ...
311
votes
35answers
36k views

Do complex numbers really exist?

Complex numbers involve the square root of negative one, and most non-mathematicians find it hard to accept that such a number is meaningful. In contrast, they feel that real numbers have an obvious ...
280
votes
29answers
40k views

My sister absolutely refuses to learn math [closed]

My 13-year-old sister has a problem which, given the way math is currently taught, I doubt is anything but all too common. She has a low grade in her math course and only ever attempts to memorize ...
251
votes
33answers
33k views

Pedagogy: How to cure students of the “law of universal linearity”?

One of the commonest mistakes made by students, appearing at every level of maths education up to about early undergraduate, is the so-called “Law of Universal Linearity”: $$ \frac{1}{a+b} ...
160
votes
14answers
10k views

Identification of a quadrilateral as a trapezoid, rectangle, or square

Yesterday I was tutoring a student, and the following question arose (number 76): My student believed the answer to be J: square. I reasoned with her that the information given only allows us to ...
128
votes
31answers
12k views

Stopping the “Will I need this for the test” question [closed]

I am a college professor in the American education system and find that the major concern of my students is trying to determine the specific techniques or problems which I will ask on the exam. This ...
113
votes
7answers
165k views

How many sides does a circle have?

My son is in 2nd grade. His math teacher gave the class a quiz, and one question was this: If a triangle has 3 sides, and a rectangle has 4 sides, how many sides does a circle have? My first ...
108
votes
44answers
13k views

What's your favorite proof accessible to a general audience? [closed]

What math statement with proof do you find most beautiful and elegant, where such is accessible to a general audience, meaning you could state, prove, and explain it to a general audience in ...
106
votes
17answers
5k views

How do you respond to “I was always bad at math”? [closed]

Here in the U.S., it is my experience that over 75% of adults I meet socially will volunteer that phrase or a variation upon learning that I am a mathematician. I find this frustrating, since almost ...
102
votes
7answers
3k views

What remains in a student's mind

I'm a first year graduate student of mathematics and I have an important question. I like studying math and when I attend, a course I try to study in the best way possible, with different textbooks ...
95
votes
11answers
6k views

Is there a domain “larger” than (i.e., a supserset of) the complex number domain?

I've been teaching my 10yo son some (for me, anyway) pretty advanced mathematics recently and he stumped me with a question. The background is this. In the domain of natural numbers, addition and ...
93
votes
9answers
6k views

Why is Euler's Gamma function the “best” extension of the factorial function to the reals?

There are lots (an infinitude) of smooth functions that coincide with f(n)=n! on the integers. Is there a simple reason why Euler's Gamma function $\Gamma (z) = \int_0^\infty t^{z-1} e^t dt$ is ...
91
votes
17answers
7k views

What parts of a pure mathematics undergraduate curriculum have been discovered since 1964?

What parts of an undergraduate curriculum in pure mathematics have been discovered since, say, 1964? (I'm choosing this because it's 50 years ago). Pure mathematics textbooks from before 1964 seem to ...
90
votes
20answers
18k views

Visually deceptive “proofs” which are mathematically wrong

Related: Visually stunning math concepts which are easy to explain Beside the wonderful examples above, there should also be counterexamples, where visually intuitive demonstrations are actually ...
87
votes
23answers
7k views

Why is there no “remainder” in multiplication

With division, you can have a remainder (such as $5/2=2$ remainder $1$). Now my six year old son has asked me "Why is there no remainder with multiplication"? The obvious answer is "because it ...
86
votes
12answers
11k views

How to convince a math teacher of this simple and obvious fact?

I have in my presence a mathematics teacher, who asserts that $$ \frac{a}{b} = \frac{c}{d} $$ Implies: $$ a = c, \space b=d $$ She has been shown in multiple ways why this is not true: $$ ...
86
votes
19answers
4k views

Good Physical Demonstrations of Abstract Mathematics

I like to use physical demonstrations when teaching mathematics (putting physics in the service of mathematics, for once, instead of the other way around), and it'd be great to get some more ideas to ...
83
votes
22answers
10k views

The Best of Dover Books (a.k.a the best cheap mathematical texts)

Perhaps this is a repeat question -- let me know if it is -- but I am interested in knowing the best of Dover mathematics books. The reason is because Dover books are very cheap and most other books ...
83
votes
3answers
8k views

Topology: The Board Game

Edit: I've drawn up some different rules, a map and some cards for playing an actual version of the game. They're available at my personal website with a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. ...
77
votes
19answers
12k views

How do you explain the concept of logarithm to a five year old?

Okay I understand that it cannot be explained to a 5 year old. But, how do you explain the logarithm to primary school students?
76
votes
22answers
7k views

Is math built on assumptions?

I just came across this statement when I was lecturing a student on math and strictly speaking I used: Assuming that the value of $x$ equals <something>, ... One of my students just rose ...
75
votes
32answers
7k views

What are some conceptualizations that work in mathematics but are not strictly true?

I'm having an argument with someone who thinks it's never justified to teach something that's not strictly correct. I disagree: often, the pedagogically most efficient way to make progress is to ...
74
votes
5answers
3k views

“Advice to young mathematicians”

I have been suggested to read the Advice to a Young Mathematician section of the Princeton Companion to Mathematics, the short paper Ten Lessons I wish I had been Taught by Gian-Carlo Rota, and the ...
73
votes
15answers
16k views

Mathematical equivalent of Feynman's Lectures on Physics?

I'm slowly reading through Feynman's Lectures on Physics and I find myself wondering, is there an analogous book (or books) for math?
73
votes
8answers
4k views

A Case Against the “Math Gene”

I'm currently teaching a mathematics course for elementary educators (think of it as math methods, but with less focus on methods and more focus on content). In a student's essay, I encountered the ...
69
votes
13answers
10k views

In calculus, which questions can the naive ask that the learned cannot answer?

Number theory is known to be a field in which many questions that can be understood by secondary-school pupils have defied the most formidable mathematicians' attempts to answer them. Calculus is not ...
68
votes
24answers
27k views

What is a good complex analysis textbook?

I'm out of college, and trying to learn complex analysis on my own. I took out Ahlfors' text from the library, but I'm finding it difficult. Any textbook recommendations? I'm probably at an ...
68
votes
14answers
6k views

Should an undergrad accept that some things don't make sense, or study the foundation of mathematics to resolve this?

I'm a second year math student. And I've the following problem. When I prepare myself for an exam, I can distinguish two phases. First I'm mainly interested in whatever is necessary to pass the ...
66
votes
3answers
5k views

Getting Students to Not Fear Confusion

I'm a fifth year grad student, and I've taught several classes for freshmen and sophomores. This summer, as an "advanced" (whatever that means) grad student I got to teach an upper level class: Intro ...
65
votes
6answers
3k views

How Do You Actually Do Your Mathematics?

Better yet, what I'm asking is how do you actually write your mathematics? I think I need to give brief background: Through most of my childhood, I'd considered myself pretty good at math, up ...
64
votes
34answers
6k views

Easy math proofs or visual examples to make high school students enthusiastic about math [closed]

I'm a teacher in mathematics at a high school. Math has fascinated me for almost my entire life, so I would like to bring that enthusiasm to my students with beautiful yet easy to understand proofs or ...
62
votes
26answers
5k views

Is there a great mathematical example for a 12-year-old?

I've just been working with my 12-year-old daughter on Cantor's diagonal argument, and countable and uncountable sets. Why? Because the maths department at her school is outrageously good, and set ...
60
votes
24answers
12k views

How would you explain to a 9th grader the negative exponent rule?

Let us assume that the students haven't been exposed to these two rules: $a^{x+y} = a^{x}a^{y}$ and $\frac{a^x}{a^y} = a^{x-y}$. They have just been introduced to the generalization: $a^{-x} = ...
60
votes
1answer
3k views

About Euclid's Elements and modern video games

Update (6/19/2014) $\;$ Just wanted to say that this idea that I posted more than a year ago, has now become reality at: http://euclidthegame.com/ 12.292 users have played it in 96 different ...
58
votes
17answers
8k views

Interesting “real life” applications of serious theorems

As a student one sometimes encounters exercises which ask you to solve a rather funny "real life problem", e.g. I recall an exercise on the Krein-Milman theorem which was something like: "You have a ...
56
votes
18answers
6k views

If there are obvious things, why should we prove them?

Obviously, there are obvious things in mathematics. Why we should prove them? Prove that $\lim\limits_{n\to\infty}\dfrac{1}{n}=0$? Prove that $f(x)=x$ is continuous on $\mathbb{R}$? $\dotsc$ Just ...
56
votes
25answers
7k views

Easy example why complex numbers are cool

I am looking for an example explainable to someone only knowing high school mathematics why complex numbers are necessary. The best example would be possible to explain rigourously and also be clearly ...
56
votes
19answers
18k views

How do I convince my students that the choice of variable of integration is irrelevant?

I will be TA this semester for the second course on Calculus, which contains the definite integral. I have thought this since the time I took this course, so how do I convince my students that for a ...
56
votes
13answers
4k views

Are all mathematicians human calculators?

I asked my dad why he did not major in math he said "because he is not good at math". I think I like math, and I think I'm ok at it, but I'm not gifted or anything like that, I just like math. I think ...
56
votes
22answers
6k views

What is your favorite application of the Pigeonhole Principle?

The pigeonhole principle states that if $n$ items are put into $m$ "pigeonholes" with $n > m$, then at least one pigeonhole must contain more than one item. I'd like to see your favorite ...
55
votes
9answers
26k views

Why is $\pi $ equal to $3.14159…$?

Wait before you dismiss this as a crank question :) A friend of mine teaches school kids, and the book she uses states something to the following effect: If you divide the circumference of any ...
55
votes
17answers
3k views

What are some good ways to get children excited about math?

I'm talking in the range of 10-12 years old, but this question isn't limited to only that range. Do you have any advice on cool things to show kids that might spark their interest in spending more ...
54
votes
17answers
17k views

Why is negative times negative = positive?

Someone recently asked me why a negative * a negative is positive, and why a negative * a positive is negative, etc. I went ahead and gave them a proof by contradiction like so: Assume $(-x) * (-y) ...
54
votes
14answers
10k views

Why do we need to learn integration techniques?

After a lifetime of approaching math the wrong way, I took two college math courses this quarter with a newfound zest for math. These classes are integral calc and multivariable calc. Integral calc ...
54
votes
8answers
8k views

When to learn category theory?

I'm a undergraduate who wishes to learn category theory but I only have basic knowledge of linear algebra and set theory, I've also had a short course on number theory which used some basic concepts ...
50
votes
14answers
12k views

How to effectively and efficiently learn mathematics

How do you effectively study mathematics? How does one read a maths book instead or just staring at it for hours? (Apologies in advance if the question is ill-posed or too subjective in its current ...
50
votes
15answers
5k views

How can I introduce complex numbers to precalculus students?

I teach a precalculus course almost every semester, and over these semesters I've found various things that work quite well. For example, when talking about polynomials and rational functions, in ...
50
votes
1answer
2k views

Is Lagrange's theorem the most basic result in finite group theory?

Motivated by this question, can one prove that the order of an element in a finite group divides the order of the group without using Lagrange's theorem? (Or, equivalently, that the order of the group ...
49
votes
14answers
4k views

Do we need to formally teach the Greek Alphabet?

This is a question that I am purely interested in because I think we never thought about this before in Mathematics education... or even so was not discussed. When did we learn the Greek alphabets ...