Visual patterns with a side of awesome sauce

Regular old Wednesday turned amazing today when I posed pattern #2 to my math recovery class, a remedial math class for kids to recover credit from a previously failed course. It may not need mentioning, but just to be clear, these kids hate math and think they’re no good at it. In pattern #2, the kids need to find how many cubes are in step 43 and the surface area of step 43. Side note:  My kids wondered, why 43, Mrs.Nguyen?

Anyway, finding the surface area was where the magic started to happen. I had 4 or 5 kids out of this class of about 15 get seriously invested in finding out the answer. They were drawing pictures, explaining their thinking to one another, figuring out different ways to think about the problem. It was inspiring and motivating for both them and me.

As if that wasn’t enough to make it a great day, I decided to pose the problem to my College Algebra class as a starter and try my hand at the 5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussions. My expectation was that they found the number of cubes and surface area of step ‘n.’ What was gorgeous about this problem was not necessarily the answer, but the numerous ways they came up with to arrive at the nth step. Here are a few:

n + n + (n-1) + (n-1) + n + (n-1) + n + (n-1) + 2

4(n-1) + 4n +2

4(2n – 1) + 2

6 + 8(n-1)

4[n+(n-3)] +10

6(n-1) + 2n + 4

8n – 2

What was even more powerful was, as Ben Blum-Smith calls, an effing game changer.  He’s right, and this was beautiful.  I used the tactic he lays out in his blogpost where students are asked to summarize the ideas of someone else.  I had a few try to slyly summarize their own ideas, but alas, I would have none of it.  As a result, I had more engagement, more involvement, and more buy-in that this problem solving process is helping them to understand the mathematics more deeply.

Here is an exchange between two students (T and C) that is worth highlighting.  T is the student who came up with 6 + 8(n-1) as the surface area for step n:

C: Oh, I see.  T just used the arithmetic sequence formula.  The first term is 6 and it goes up by 8.

T:  Actually, that’s not what I was thinking.  I thought that there were 8 sides of the figure that had ‘n-1’ squares and then 6 squares left over, two on the caps and 4 in the corner.  OH, you’re right, it is the formula.

Then the lights came on.  This girl who had probably only known mathematics and algebra to be a long list of rules, procedures, formulas, and practice was able to experience that developing a conceptual understanding of this pattern help her to create the arithmetic sequence formula.  It was the bottom-up approach that I’d been talking about all trimester where developing conceptual foundations are where real math learning happens.


  1. Thanks for reminding me of Ben’s fantastic approach. I tried this a couple of times in my Calc BC class. I need to try SO hard to change my natural practice. It’s too, too easy to just have the convo I’ve had twenty times before.

    Congrats on the fantastic exchange.These are the things that make this career so wonderful.

  2. Why not 43? 🙂 Thank you so much for writing this up, Megan. Right, the big payoff for this is the variety of ways that students see the nth step and be able to share as whole class. The different ways serve well as a way to show simplifying equations as they all should boil down to the same equation. You and your kids ROCK!!!

  3. Your college class experience is what I seek in high school level classes- a chance to work the problem without the formula (which they often don’t make connection with anyway) and then let it ‘click’. High Five on your awesome class- thanks for sharing!!

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