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Proofs witho

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).

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

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.

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

Source: Burton (2007)

Fig. 2 this diagram dates to circa 300 Bce.

post the entire solution because others should have

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

Problem 1: Proof without Words:

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.

Source: Kung (1990)

Fig. 4 This proof of the law of cosines depends on the
product of the segments of chords theorem.

Source: Kung (1990)

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.

An example of a proof without words that I have

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
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

triangle inscribed in a semicircle is a right triangle.

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.

Some students used The Geometers Sketchpad

(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.

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.

sent that statement. Problem 2 (see fig. 8) shows

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

example of the first equation in the pattern created

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





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

The student explained his illustration as follows:

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

The total area of the [largest] square equals the

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.

Clearly, this student took time to think about the

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

Problem 2: Pythagorean Triples

Consider the following pattern:
32 + 42 = 52
52 + 122 = 132
72 + 242 = 252
92 + 402 = 412

1. State a general rule suggested by the example

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
Fig. 8 students with some experience with proofs without
words may be able to tackle this more sophisticated problem.

pattern were correct. This was an indication that

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.

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

Fig. 10 the general pattern for problem 2 can be visually displayed.

School Mathematics. Reston, VA: NCTM, 2000.

.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):
Pinter, Klara. Proof without words: The Area of a
Right Triangle. Mathematics Magazine 71, no. 4
(1998): 314.

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):
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
(NCTM). Principles and Standards for

CAROL J. BELL, cbell@nmu.edu,

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.

Vol. 104, No. 9 May 2011 | MatheMatics teacher 695