Lately I’ve been enjoying Veritasium’s videos on misconceptions about science. From the Veritasium YouTube channel:

If you hold views that are consistent with the majority of the population, does that make you stupid? I don’t think so. Science has uncovered a lot of counterintuitive things about the universe, so it’s unsurprising that non-scientists hold beliefs inconsistent with science. But when we teach, we must take into account what the learners know, including their incorrect knowledge. That is the reason a lot of Veritasium videos start with the misconceptions.

I’ve been thinking about students’ misconceptions about mathematics. What math concepts are counterintuitive? How might starting with the misconception play out in the math classroom? Probability probably provides the most potential, from a pedagogical point of view. (Do robot graders give high marks for alliteration?) The classic Monty Hall problem or birthday problem are just two examples of this. Exponential growth can also be counterintuitive – see Chris Lusto’s alternative to the doubling penny problem.

One common misconception students have is that (a + b)^2 is equal to a^2 + b^2. In my classroom, I’d start with this misconception then have students substitute values before exploring this with algebra tiles. Not exactly Why does the Earth spin? type stuff. Still, addressing this misconception right off the bat provided us with a problem to solve – if (a + b)^2 is not equal to a^2 + b^2, then what is it equal to and why?

Recently, I was fascinated by Dan Meyer’s Coke v. Sprite question because my gut reaction was wrong. Twice. Please watch Dan’s act one video now. I’ll wait.

What fraction must you drink to balance the Coke can on edge?

My guess was that there was more Sprite in the Sprite glass than there was Coke in the Coke glass. After all, I reasoned, the Coke that was added to the Sprite also contained a small amount of Sprite.

When I did the calculations, I was surprised to learn that the amount of Sprite in the Sprite glass and the amount of Coke in the Coke glass were the same:

- Assume the original amount of each is 100 mL.
- Assume 10 mL of Sprite is transferred to the Coke.
- 10 mL of pop is transferred back to the Sprite. Stirring means 10/110, or 1/11, of this is Sprite. 100/110, or 10/11, of this is Coke.
- The amount of Sprite in the Sprite glass is now 90 mL + (1/11)*10 mL = 90 10/11 mL.
- The amount of Coke in the Coke glass is now 100 mL – (10/11)*10 mL = 90 10/11 mL.

Before watching Dan’s act 3 video, my colleague Shelagh Lim and I modelled this with colour tiles:

- Start with 12 green tiles on the left and 12 red tiles on the right.
- Move 4 green tiles to the right. Now, 4/16, or 1/4, of the tiles on the left are green. 12/16, or 3/4, are red.
- 4 tiles are moved back to the left. To simulate the effect of stirring, 1 of these 4 are green. 3 of these 4 are red.
- The number of green tiles on the left is now 8 + 1 = 9.
- The number of red tiles on the right is now 12 – 3 = 9.

Shelagh asked, “What if you don’t move back 1 green and 3 red? What if you close your eyes and take out 4 random tiles?” In other words, does stirring matter? I argued it did. “Something something proportions,” I said.

Mind. Blown.

I want students to experience this feeling of enjoyment at being led astray by their intuition. But, more importantly, students must also experience the feeling of enjoyment that comes from following their intuition and being correct. The former is not possible without the latter; to be amused by failure, there needs to be an expectation of success.