__Introduction__

Had a thought. Simple one-variable 1st degree equations, by definition, state that there is a bunch of stuff “here” that equals a bunch of stuff “there”. For example, 2(3x ̶ 1) = 5(x + 1). What is meant by “equal”? Looking at this equation, obviously the two bunches of stuff are not equal! What this statement means is that if you can find the value of the variable “x”, replace the “x’ with that value in both sides of the equation and evaluate both sides, the value on both sides of the equation sign will be equal. Thus, that’s why one solves for the value of “x”.

The fundamental rule for solving equations is “whatever you do to one side of the equation, you do to the other side.” This, in essence, maintains the equality. My thought was that rather than start with an equality and burp out the rules, start with an unequation and have students play with it to find out how to make it an equation. However, we won’t use paper and pencil; we’ll use poker chips.

__The Story__

In order to solve an equation of this order, students need to know a lot of stuff – identification of terms, order of operations, distributive law, the four basic operations with signed numbers and to verify their answer, substitution of a value for the unknown and of course the basic rule of “whatever you do to one side of the equation, you do to the other side.”

Solving unequations is simpler and is a kinesthetic, visual way to have students play with all those things which, in my view, expands their conception of equations. In many instances, I’ve seen students who know all the elements but somehow can’t blend them together to solve equations. Here’s how unequations work.

Each group of students (2 or 3 to a group) gets a handful of white poker chips and each chip has a positive on one side and a negative on the other. You can use other markers if you choose.

I ask them to put 1 to 5 chips in each pile but the total value in each pile can’t be the same. Two questions that always comes up are (1) can we put positives in one pile and negatives in the other and (2) can we put positives and negatives in the same pile? So, right away, they’re thinking about this exercise; they’re engaged. We have a discussion about this and although they don’t yet know what to do with these 2 piles (although some guess they’re equations), I let them determine what is allowable. So again, right away they “own” this exercise because they have determined what’s allowable. By the way, the discussion about what is allowable has many branches and typically includes a lot of “what if” banter. I just listen.

Once this is resolved, I then ask them to label the pile on the left “A” and the pile on the right “B”. This also is fun because there typically is someone who stacks the piles vertically rather than horizontally, so I simply say the pile furthest from you is A and the pile closest is B.

When everyone is ready I then ask them to do something to their pile A such that the total value in both piles is equal. This is also a fun point in the exercise for classes that allow positives in one pile and negatives in the other, but overall the buzz within each group again is one of the goals of this exercise. When this is done, I ask them to return to their original piles and then I ask them to do something to their pile B such that the total value in both piles is equal.

In both cases, I ask them if there was only 1 way to make the piles equal. Buzz, buzz again and the consensus was yes.

The next question to them was do something to both piles __at the same time__ such that the total value in both piles is equal. This really generates buzz and questions to me, which I say I’ll answer later. The reason I won’t answer is that I want them to explore how this works. What they discover is that there is an unlimited number of ways to do this. For example, if A = 2 and B = 4, add 5 to A and 3 to B and both piles equal 7. There usually is an “aha” moment when they realize that as long as the difference between the two numbers added to A and B is 2, the total value will always be equal. Some also discover that unequal amounts can be subtracted from both piles and further that two numbers differing by 2 can result in an equal value in both piles. And there’s another “aha” moment – the total value in both piles can be negative if both were positive at first! And what’s more, zero is a valid value!

So, we played with these 3 options for a while and there was discussion all along about not only what was allowable but also the range of answers under the different conditions. Then we moved to equal piles to begin the exercise.

I ask them to adjust their piles so that there is an equal number in both piles. This then brings up the issue of their rule allowing positives in one pile and negatives in the other, if they allowed this. They realize they have to rule it out. But I then ask if they can have an equal value in both piles while having positives and negatives __in the same pile__. Can the total in both piles be positive or negative? Buzz, buzz and the conclusion is that it’s ok but this comes after a lot of discussion and this really gets them going about signed numbers. For example, if they are to have 3 positives in both piles to begin, they could put 4 positives and 1 negative, or 6 positives and 3 negatives or … here it goes again with an unlimited number of both as long as the total is 3.

So, I ask them to consider there beginning equal value in both piles and typically they make it simple – either all positive or all negative and they do this partly – they tell me – because they don’t know what I’m going to ask them to do. At this point, the equation question arises and I have to admit that we’re headed in that direction. After playing with this for a while, the class concludes (again) that there is an unlimited number of values that can be added or subtracted to maintain the inequality.

The next step is to give each group a few blue chips. What the group is asked to do is have one person look away of shut their eyes while the others in the group do two things: (1) set up two piles with an equal number of chips in both and (2) remove a certain number of chips from one of the piles and place a blue chip in that pile. In essence, create a simple equation. When they are done setting it up, the closed-eye person is to look at what they’ve done and answer the question: what must you replace the blue chip with in order to make the piles have equal value?

Do each of these exercises until the class seems comfortable with all the ideas that got buzzed about.

At this point, if you’d like to extend this 2-pile concept to work with introducing work with equations, see __Chipping Away at Equations__ in this blog. It links up with this posting and together it gives students a different view of equations.