Proof

When math books present a theorem they almost always immediately present its proof. I tend to skip the proofs. I assume they are correct. I want to get on with the ideas in the text. Later I may come back and read through them. Is this a good thing to advise students to do? I don’t know.

There are reasons to read proofs. One reason is to help understand why a theorem is true, by seeing the reasoning that lead to the result. Another is to check the reasoning yourself. A third is to learn how to do proofs.

Learning to write original proofs is not usually one of the goals of a beginning calculus course. That comes later in a course with “analysis” in its title. There are many theorems that involve some one-off that rarely will be used again. I’m thinking of  a  proof  like that of the sum of the limits is equal to the limit of the sums, where you add and subtract the same expression and this more complicated form allows you to group and factor  the terms of the numerator and arrive at the result. Another example is in the Mean Value Theorem where you consider a new function that gives the vertical distance between a function and its secant line. These always bring the question, “How did you know to do that?”

If a student can accept things like that, then the proof is usually easy enough to follow. But I would never spend a lot of time making every student fight his or her way through each and every proof.

On this other hand, I would never just present a theorem and not give some explanation as to why it is true (and why it is important enough to mention). Unfortunately, I have seen teachers write the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus on the board and proceed to show how to use it to evaluate definite integrals, with no hint of why this important theorem is true. Sure kids can memorize it and use it, but it seems to me they should also have a hint as to why it is true.

Some theorems are easy to understand if explained in ways other than a proof. For an example of this, see my post of October 1, 2012  on the Mean Value Theorem. Almost every book will bail out on the Intermediate Value Theorem by claiming (quite rightly) that, “the proof is beyond the scope of this book,” or they give the proof in an appendix. But a simple drawing will convince you that it is true.

So my feeling is that you do not need to labor over a proof for every theorem, BUT, big BUT, you should provide a good explanation of why it is true.

This is important for all students and especially for young women. Jo Boaler writes

“As I interviewed more and more boys and girls, I noticed that the desire to know why was something that separated the girls from the boys. The girls were able to accept the method that were shown them and practice them, but they wanted to know why they worked, where they came from, and how they connected with other methods…. When they could not get access to the depth of understanding they wanted, the girls started to turn away from the subject…. Classes in which students discuss concepts, giving them access to a deep and connected understanding of math, are good for boys and girls. Boys may be willing to work in isolation on abstract rules, but such approaches do not give many students, girls or boys, access to the understanding they need. In addition, high-level work in mathematics, science and engineering is not about isolated, abstract rule following, but about collaboration and connection making.”

[Jo Boaler, What’s Math Got to Do with It? Helping Children Learn to Love Their Most Hated Subject – And Why It’s Important for America, © 2008 Penguin Group, New York. From Chapter 6]

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