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A Visual Application of

Illustrating mathematical statements

through the use of picturesproofs

without wordscan help students

develop their understanding of

mathematical proof.

carol J. Bell

Reasoning and Proof is one of the Process Standards set forth in NCTMs Principles and Standards

for School Mathematics (2000). Thus, it is important

to give students opportunities to build their reasoning skills and aid their understanding of the proof

process. Teaching students how to do proofs is a

difficult task because students often will not know

how to begin a proof.

The use of proofs without words is effective in

helping students understand the proof process, and

here I describe how I have used these proofs in my

classroom. Using proofs without words in teaching

mathematical concepts can help students improve

their ability to reason when asked to explain an

illustration, and this heightened reasoning can

lead to understanding how to begin a formal proof.

Understanding formal proofs not only deepens students understanding of mathematical concepts but

also prepares students for higher-level mathematics.

A proof without words is a mathematical drawing

that illustrates the proof of a mathematical statement without a formal argument provided in words.

Examples of proofs without words can be found

on various Web sites (e.g., illuminations.nctm.org,

www.cut-the-knot.org), in two books by Nelsen

(1993, 2000), and in articles in mathematics journals (see, e.g., Pinter [1998] and Nelsen [2001]).

Some interactive proofs without words are available on the Internet. For instance, an animated version of Proof without Words: Pythagorean Theorem may be found on NCTMs Illuminations Web

site (http://illuminations.nctm.org/ActivityDetail.

aspx?ID=30). During the animation in this proof

without words, the four triangles and the square on

the left side of figure 1 are rearranged to form the

right side of the figure. (Note that labels have been

added to the figure to aid in understanding.)

The concept of a proof without words is not

new by any means. For instance, the proof of

the Pythagorean theorem shown in figure 1 was

inspired by the mathematical drawing shown in

figure 2. This drawing is found in one of the oldest

surviving Chinese texts, Arithmetic Classic of the

Gnomon and the Circular Paths of Heaven (ca. 300

BCE), and contains formal mathematical theories.

The proof eventually found its way into the Vijaganita (Root Calculation) by the Indian mathematician Bhaskara (111485 CE).

An explanation of the diagram in figure 1 and

a corresponding proof of the illustration are reproduced here:

Draw a right triangle four times in the square of the

hypotenuse, so that in the middle there remains

a square whose side equals the difference

between the two sides of the right triangle.

Let c be the side of the large square (hypotenuse).

Copyright 2011 The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Inc. www.nctm.org. All rights reserved.

This material may not be copied or distributed electronically or in any other format without written permission from NCTM.

hout Words

Reasoning and Proof

Label the legs of the right triangle as a and b, where

a b.

In the figure on the left, the area of the large square

is c2.

Rearrange the polygons of the figure on the left to

create the figure on the right.

Now, the area of the figure on the right is composed

of the area of two squares, the lengths of whose

sides correspond to the legs of the right triangle,

or a2 + b2.

Since both the left figure and right figure are composed of the same polygons, then they both have

the same area.

Thus, c2 = a2 + b2.

Source: http://illuminations.nctm.org/ActivityDetail.aspx?ID=30

Fig. 1 it is up to the observer to provide the reasoning that explains why the

transformation of the gure represents a proof of the Pythagorean theorem.

CLASSROOM APPLICATION OF

PROOFS WITHOUT WORDS

Proofs without words cover a wide range of mathematical conceptsincluding algebra, trigonometry,

geometry, and calculusand can be used in such

courses as the history of mathematics. I generally

introduce students to proofs without words by

using those available on the Illuminations Web

site. Students are arranged into groups to discuss

the proof. If the proof without words is an interactive diagram, students are first shown a demonstration of the diagram and then asked to discuss

in their groups a formal proof of what is depicted.

This process allows students to work together to

understand the diagram and prove the mathematical result illustrated.

To further aid students in their understanding of

the proof process, I also post a proof without words

on an online discussion board. Use of such technology encourages class discussion about the diagram

and why the diagram represents a proof of the

statement being illustrated. Students use the online

discussion board to post questions and any results

they have found. However, I ask students not to

Fig. 2 this diagram dates to circa 300 Bce.

the opportunity to develop their own ideas about

how to prove the statement. Students who do not

know where to begin are encouraged to post questions on the discussion board to get hints from me

or other studentsa process that promotes class

discussion of the problem. Students are graded on

both their participation in the online discussion

and their written work.

Vol. 104, No. 9 May 2011 | MatheMatics teacher 691

The Law of Cosines

Explain how each label in the figure is obtained

and then explain how the law of cosines can be

deduced from the information in the diagram.

That is, how can you use the diagram to prove

the law of cosines? The figure shows q as an

acute angle. How would the figure change if q is

obtuse? Use The Geometers Sketchpad to provide a revised construction.

Fig. 4 This proof of the law of cosines depends on the

product of the segments of chords theorem.

Fig. 3 In preparation for the online class discussion of problem 1, students reviewed the law of cosines and discussed

how it would generally be proved in a high school textbook.

used in my geometry course is provided in problem

1 (see fig. 3). Through the online class discussion,

students who understood the diagram provided hints

to those who did not see how to begin. The online

discussion allowed students to learn from their peers

and also helped students improve their written communication of mathematical ideas. Written explanations provided a means for students to organize

their thinking about how they reasoned through

a problem, and organizing their thinking, in turn,

helped them better understand the proof process. In

explaining the diagram, most students found that it

was easier to add labels, as shown in figure 4.

The following student response to the diagram

in figure 4 is typical:

onstruct triangle ABC with longest side BC and

C

acute angle C, denoted by q. With center B and

radius BC, construct circle B. Extend BC to form

diameter DC. Extend AC so that it intersects circle

B. Label the intersection point W. Construct right

triangle DCW. This is a right triangle because any

692 Mathematics Teacher | Vol. 104, No. 9 May 2011

Extend AB so that it intersects circle B at points P

and Q to form diameter PQ. Let the radius = a. Let

AB = c. Let AC = b. By right-triangle trigonometry,

WC = 2acosq, so WA = 2acosq b.

(GSP) to construct the diagram and explain the

problem. A virtuostic example of how one student

used GSP to answer the first part of problem 1 is

provided in figure 5.

Because the law of cosines can also be applied to

obtuse triangles, I asked students how the diagram

would change if angle q were obtuse. In the online

class discussion, some students comments indicated that they believed that constructing a similar

diagram having an obtuse angle was impossible.

Figure 6 shows a students attempt to construct a

new diagram with angle q obtuse. The student concluded that the construction was impossible.

Other students indicated that if angle q were

obtuse, the angle could not be drawn inside the circle.

Some students were successful in constructing a

diagram. Figure 7 provides examples of correct diagrams created by four different students. Two examples show angle q entirely inside the circle, and two

examples show angle q extending outside the circle.

ANOTHER EXAMPLE

In another course, after students had sufficient

experience with the concept of proof without

words, they were given a mathematical statement

and asked to construct their own image to repre-

Fig. 5 One preservice teacher used GsP to provide a thorough and excellent response to problem 1.

Fig. 6 a students attempt to create a revised diagram with q obtuse resulted in an incomplete diagram.

the problem given to the students.

All students were able to answer the first question and state a general rule for the pattern as

(2n + 1)2 + (2n2 + 2n)2 = (2n2 + 2n + 1)2 for n = 1,

2, 3, . In response to the second question, some

students used mathematical induction to prove that

the statement was true for all integers n 1, and

others just used algebra to clear parentheses on

one side of the equation, simplify, and obtain the

other side of the equation. Most students were able

to construct an image to illustrate the pattern, and

they gave very detailed explanations of how this

image can be used to generate the general equation

in the pattern. In providing a visual statement in

terms of n, several students first provided images

of one or two of the equations in the pattern. An

by a student is shown in figure 9.

By looking at examples of images that represent

one or two of the equations, the student was able

to construct a diagram to represent the pattern in

terms of n. The students general representation is

shown in figure 10. Although one student used

dots in a manner similar to the polygons shown in

figure 10, most students used an area model with

squares and rectangles for their illustration. In the

figure, notice that the large square on the right side

of the equation consists of the blue square of area

(2n2 + 2n)2 from the left side of the equation and

the yellow square of area (2n + 1)2. Algebraically,

(2n + 1)2 = 4n2 + 4n + 1 = (2n2 + 2n) + (2n2 + 2n)

+ 1, so the yellow square can be broken apart to

form the yellow L-shaped region with a width of 1.

Vol. 104, No. 9 May 2011 | MatheMatics teacher 693

(a)

(b)

(c)

(d)

Fig. 7 several students were successful in constructing a proof without words for the law of cosines with q obtuse.

The side length of the yellow square is 2n + 1, and

the side length of the blue square is 2n2 + 2n. The

area of the yellow square is (2n + 1)2 or 4n2 + 4n +

1. The area of the blue square is (2n2 + 2n)2. Looking at the final square: the side length of the square

to the far right will be 2n2 + 2n for the blue square

and then an additional 1 for the width of the yellow

strips or 2n2 + 2n + 1. Its total area is (2n2 + 2n + 1)2.

We can see that this works for any n, n 1, by

looking at the area of that larger rectangle on the far

right. The side length of the blue square in the interior

of the larger square has already been established to

be 2n2 + 2n. The L-shaped yellow strip has a width of

1, as shown, and is broken into 3 sections. The long,

rectangular sections will have area (2n2 + 2n)(1). The

little square section will have an area of (1)(1). The

area of the entire yellow strip will be (2n2 + 2n)(1) +

(2n2 + 2n)(1) + 1. This can be simplified to be 4n2 + 4n

+ 1. (Note: This is also the area of the yellow square.)

694 MatheMatics teacher | Vol. 104, No. 9 May 2011

area of the L-shaped yellow strip plus the area of

the blue square:

Total Area = Area of Yellow Strip + Area of

Blue Square

(2n2 + 2n + 1)2 = (4n2 + 4n + 1) + (2n2 + 2n)2

(2n2 + 2n + 1)2 = (2n + 1)2 + (2n2 + 2n)2

This can now be seen to be equivalent to the

original equation, and thus the original equation

holds true: (2n + 1)2 + (2n2 + 2n)2 = (2n2 + 2n + 1)2.

parts of the diagram and explain how they related to

the original equation. This level of thinking requires

reasoning through each part of the explanation,

quite important in understanding the proof process.

A few students did not have a correct picture for

the general representation even though their examples for one or two of the equations in the

Consider the following pattern:

32 + 42 = 52

52 + 122 = 132

72 + 242 = 252

92 + 402 = 412

above that will hold for all integers n 1

where n = 1 corresponds to the pattern in

the first equation, n = 2 corresponds to the

pattern in the second equation, and so on. Be

sure to include your work on how you computed the general rule.

2. Prove that your general statement is true for

all integers n 1.

3. Illustrate the pattern visually (e.g., with dots,

lengths of segments, areas, or in some other

way).

Fig. 8 students with some experience with proofs without

words may be able to tackle this more sophisticated problem.

one or two correct examples do not necessarily

imply that a general representation can be formed.

Some students use examples as a way to try to prove

the general result of a statement, but with more

practice they can overcome this misinterpretation of

proving a general result.

CONCLUSION

I have provided some ideas on how to use proofs

without words in the classroom, but no doubt

there are other ways of using them to help students

improve their understanding of mathematical

proof. When students write a formal proof of what

is being illustrated in a proof without words, they

are not just improving their proof-writing ability;

they are also learning how to reason through a

mathematics problem better. Providing an explanation of the diagram is also a good way for students

to improve their ability to reason because they must

think about the individual parts in the diagram. By

creating their own visual representation of a mathematical statement, students are also improving

their ability to reason through a problem.

Fig. 9 some students were able to devise an illustration of the rst equation in the

pattern.

.Proof without Words: Pythagorean Theorem.

2008. http://illuminations.nctm.org.

Nelsen, Roger B. Proofs without Words: Exercises in

Visual Thinking. Washington, DC: Mathematical

Association of America, 1993.

. Proofs without Words II: More Exercises in

Visual Thinking. Washington, DC: Mathematical

Association of America, 2000.

. Herons Formula via Proofs without Words.

The College Mathematics Journal 32, no. 4 (2001):

29092.

Pinter, Klara. Proof without words: The Area of a

Right Triangle. Mathematics Magazine 71, no. 4

(1998): 314.

REFERENCES

Burton, David M. The History of Mathematics: An

Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007.

Kung, Sidney H. Proof without Words: The Law of

Cosines. Mathematics Magazine 63, no. 5 (1990):

342.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics

(NCTM). Principles and Standards for

teaches mathematics education courses at Northern Michigan University in

Marquette. She is interested in how

future teachers communicate and make sense of

the mathematics they will someday teach.

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