I know. The title “Is it -3 or is it -3?” looks weird but it’s not a typographical error. It’s a way to bring attention to algebraic notation. The question is: how did you read -3? Did you say “minus 3” or did you say “negative 3”? Does it make a difference?
In Day’s 1853 An Introduction to Algebra, he writes 5 pages on the topic – yes, 5 whole pages of words discussing negative quantities. He wants to make sure that students understand that the 4 basic operations in arithmetic are different from the 4 basic operations in algebra because of the introduction of negative quantities in algebra. In lengthy discussions he cites how negative quantities appear in profits of trade, ascent and decent from earth, progress of a ship relative to a latitude, and of course money. Clearly he’s conveying what I would call the algebraic trip-wire – how to handle negative quantities. This kind of lengthy discussion isn’t presented in today’s texts but rather students are presented with diagrams and number lines and visual aids to help them understand the rules. An instructor can supplement the text with their own creative explanations and demonstrations. But Day’s emphasis on this point may well be what is needed in today’s texts – a core understanding of the rationale behind the rules.
So, back to “is it − 3 or is it – 3?”
Day’s writing prompted me to recall a question from a student. We were working with operations with signed numbers. Typically I am very careful to reference any “ ̶ “ in a problem or an answer as a negative or as a minus, depending on its use in the problem. Knowing, for example, that + ( ̶ 3) gives the same result as ̶ (+3), in the former the “ ̶ “ is understood as negative 3 but in the latter it’s understood as minus 3. As noted, it ultimately makes no difference, but a student stopped me during a discussion and pointed out that in the same problem I had referred to a term as both and it didn’t seem right to him … and in a most technical sense, he was right. I asked if he were the only one bothered by this and other students felt as he did.
I admitted to my sloppy use of the terms and we got back to discussing operations with signed numbers and then again, this student stopped me. He asked “what about – and in his words – minus a minus 5” – how come it’s plus 5?” I wrote ̶ ( ̶ 5) the board and asked him if this is what he meant and he said yes. I asked him then what operation is being indicated and he said that it indicated to subtract a negative. So, the sign inside the parenthesis isn’t a minus, rather it’s a negative sign, a sign of the number. The class was muttering about this somewhat lengthy Socratic discussion – and they participated too – which really was a very positive result of the initial question … what some might call an unintended consequence … but a good one.
And of course, there was the question of “does it make a difference what I call it if I get the right answer?” So, we played language games with various examples until there was consensus that there was a difference between “minus” as the operation of subtraction and “negative” as the sign of the number. But, for most of the class, this difference didn’t make a difference as long as they understood what the notation in the problem was asking. So, I asked them to think about this:
Don’t do this problem yet but within your group, discuss the “ ̶ “ signs in the problem 4 ̶ 6 + 2 ̶ 3 ̶ 5 + 7. Signs of the number of signs of the operation? It was fun to roam the room and listen to the within-group discussions. As expected, there were disagreements, yet those that disagreed came to understand that both were correct! It was a matter of what procedure made each person feel most comfortable.
After allowing for discussions, I asked for volunteers to go to the board and demonstrate their solution. There were two primary solutions: first, just use the order of operations and do the indicated operations from left to right, although there was some stumbling to explain how to handle “2 ̶ 3 ̶ 5”. The language used in explaining the whole problem was interesting. For example, “4 ̶ 6” equals minus 2 (not negative 2) and minus 2 and plus 2 is zero (adding two operation not two values). Then zero minus 3 (the “ ̶ “ is the sign of the operation) gave “minus 3” and the next operation was expressed as “a minus 3 and a minus 5 equals negative 8”. Think about that. Technically, the 3 and the 5 were expressed as adding two subtractions (minus wasn’t seen as an operation) yet the answer of negative 8 was correct notation. But the real thing to notice is that the answer is correct independent of technically incorrect labelling of the values.
As much as I believe in the importance of carefully using either minus or negative correctly, it clearly seems that – at least for this student and his group – knowing how to handle the negative is more important.
The second solution was given with a preface. This student rewrote the problem as 4 + ( ̶ 6) + (+2) + ( ̶ 3) + ( ̶ 5) + ( +7). She pointed out that her group saw all the signs as signs of the numbers and therefore they just added them all together. Neat.
Of course there are more ways to handle this problem but these two examples show that as long as students understand the basic rules and relationships with signed numbers, the right answer will be found. We talked about these two solutions and how to handle the signs and operations.
I then asked if all the talk we had about the difference between negative 3 and minus 3 made a difference for them. The consensus was yes and that it showed up when they were talking about the problem in their group. Apparently, it provided a clearer understanding of the difference.
There was also the comment that allowing them to challenge me (I pointed out it wasn’t challenging me but rather challenging the math content) gave them a sense that the “rules” and labels weren’t arbitrary – that there really was sense to it.
Finally, I’d like to note that hearing a student’s question as a real interest in knowing rather than a hostile kind of “whatever”, opened the door to the discussion which further opened the door for their better understanding – again an unintended positive consequence. If you have time, try it.