Tag Archives: Puzzles

Math with Many Right Answers

The discussion matters more than the final answer.
The discussion matters more than the final answer.

One of the most persistent math myths in popular culture is the idea that mathematics is primarily about getting right answers.

The truth is, the answer doesn’t matter that much in math. What really matters is how you explain that answer. An answer is “right” if the explanation makes sense.

And if you don’t give an explanation, then you really aren’t doing mathematics at all.

Try This Number Puzzle

Here is a short sequence of numbers. Can you figure out the rule and fill in the next three blanks?

2, 3, 5, 7, ___, ___, ___, …

Remember, what’s important is not which numbers you pick, but rather how you explain your answer.

Possibility #1

Perhaps the sequence is the prime numbers?

2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, …

The prime numbers make a wonderful sequence, though it isn’t the one I was thinking of.

Continue reading Math with Many Right Answers

Puzzle: Crystal Ball Connection Patterns

K4 matchings

In the land of Fantasia, where people communicate by crystal ball, Wizard Mathys has been placed in charge of keeping the crystal connections clean and clear. He decides to figure out how many different ways people might talk to each other, assuming there’s no such thing as a crystal conference call.

Mathys sketches a diagram of four Fantasian friends and their crystal balls. At the top, you can see all the possible connections, but no one is talking to anyone else because it’s naptime. Fantasians take their siesta very seriously. That’s one possible state of the 4-crystal system.

On the second line of the diagram, Joe (in the middle) wakes up from siesta and calls each of his friends in turn. Then the friends take turns calling each other, bringing the total number of possible connection-states up to seven.

Finally, Wizard Mathys imagines what would happen if one friend calls Joe at the same time as the other two are talking to each other. That’s the last line of the diagram: three more possible states. Therefore, the total number of conceivable communication configurations for a 4-crystal system is 10.

For some reason Mathys can’t figure out, mathematicians call the numbers that describe the connection pattern states in his crystal ball communication system Telephone numbers.


  • Can you help Wizard Mathys figure out the Telephone numbers for different numbers of people?
    T(0) = ?
    T(1) = ?
    T(2) = ?
    T(3) = ?
    T(4) = 10 connection patterns (as above)
    T(5) = ?
    T(6) = ?
    and so on.

Hint: Don’t forget to count the state of the system when no one is on the phone crystal ball.

Feature photo at top of post by Christian Schnettelker (web designer) and wizard photo by Sean McGrath via Flickr. (CC BY 2.0) This puzzle was originally featured in the Math Teachers At Play (MTaP) math education blog carnival: MTaP #76.

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Math Game: Thirty-One

Math Concepts: addition to thirty-one, thinking ahead.
Players: best for two.
Equipment: one deck of math cards.

How to Play

Lay out the ace to six of each suit in a row, face up and not overlapping, one suit above another. You will have one column of four aces, a column of four twos, and so on‌—‌six columns in all.

The first player flips a card upside down and says its number value. Players alternate, each time turning down one card, mentally adding its value to the running total, and saying the new sum out loud. The player who exactly reaches thirty-one, or who forces the next player to go over that sum, wins the game.


Continue reading Math Game: Thirty-One

April 2015 Math Calendar

Feature photo above by Kelly Sikkema via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).


Six years ago, my homeschool co-op classes had fun creating this April calendar to hand out at our end-of-semester party. Looking at my regular calendar today, I noticed that April this year starts on Wednesday, just like it did back then. I wonder when’s the next time that will happen?

A math calendar is not as easy to read as a traditional calendar — it is more like a puzzle. The expression in each square simplifies to that day’s date, so your family can treat each day like a mini-review quiz: “Do you remember how to calculate this?”

The calendar my students made is appropriate for middle school and beyond, but you can make a math calendar with puzzles for any age or skill level. Better yet, encourage the kids to make puzzles of their own.

How to Use the Math Calendar

At home:
Post the calendar on your refrigerator. Use each math puzzle as a daily review “mini-quiz” for your children (or yourself).

In the classroom:
Post today’s calculation on the board as a warm-up puzzle. Encourage your students to make up “Today is…” puzzles of their own.

As a puzzle:
Cut the calendar squares apart, then challenge your students to arrange them in ascending (or descending) order.

Help Us Make the Next Math Calendar

If you like, you may use the following worksheet:

Submission details here: Kids’ Project — More Math Calendars?

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2015 Mathematics Game

[Feature photo above by Scott Lewis and title background (right) by Carol VanHook, both (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr.]


Did you know that playing games is one of the Top 10 Ways To Improve Your Brain Fitness? So slip into your workout clothes and pump up those mental muscles with the Annual Mathematics Year Game Extravaganza!

For many years mathematicians, scientists, engineers and others interested in math have played “year games” via e-mail. We don’t always know whether it’s possible to write all the numbers from 1 to 100 using only the digits in the current year, but it’s fun to see how many you can find.

Math Forum Year Game Site

Rules of the Game

Use the digits in the year 2015 to write mathematical expressions for the counting numbers 1 through 100. The goal is adjustable: Young children can start with looking for 1-10, middle grades with 1-25.

  • You must use all four digits. You may not use any other numbers.
  • Solutions that keep the year digits in 2-0-1-5 order are preferred, but not required.
  • You may use +, -, x, ÷, sqrt (square root), ^ (raise to a power), ! (factorial), and parentheses, brackets, or other grouping symbols.
  • You may use a decimal point to create numbers such as .2, .02, etc., but you cannot write 0.02 because we only have one zero in this year’s number.
  • You may create multi-digit numbers such as 10 or 201 or .01, but we prefer solutions that avoid them.

My Special Variations on the Rules

  • You MAY use the overhead-bar (vinculum), dots, or brackets to mark a repeating decimal. But students and teachers beware: you can’t submit answers with repeating decimals to Math Forum.
  • You MAY NOT use a double factorial, n!! = the product of all integers from 1 to n that have the same parity (odd or even) as n. Math Forum allows these, but I’ve decided I prefer my arithmetic straight.

Click here to continue reading.

Math Storytelling Day: The Hospital Floor

[Feature photo above by Christiaan Triebert via flickr (CC BY 2.0).]

Have you ever heard of Math Storytelling Day? On September 25, people around the world celebrate mathematics by telling stories together. The stories can be real — like my story below — or fictional like the tale of Wizard Mathys from Fantasia and his crystal ball communication system.

Check out these posts for more information:

My Math Story


My story begins with an unexpected adventure in pain. Appendicitis sidewhacked my life last week, but that’s not the story. It’s just the setting. During my recovery, I spent a lot of time in the smaller room of my hospital suite. I noticed this semi-random pattern in the floor tile, which made me wonder:

  • Did they choose the pattern to keep their customers from getting bored while they were … occupied?
  • Is the randomness real? Or can I find a line of symmetry or a set of tiles that repeat?
  • If I take pictures from enough different angles, could I transfer the whole floor to graph paper for further study?
  • And if the nurse finds me doing this, will she send me to a different ward of the hospital? Do hospitals have psychiatric wards, or is that only in the movies?
  • What is the biggest chunk of squares I could “break out” from this pattern that would create the illusion of a regular, repeating tessellation?

I gave up on the graph paper idea (for now) and printed the pictures to play with. By my definition, “broken” pattern chunks need to be contiguous along the sides of the tiles, like pentominoes. Also, the edge of the chunk must be a clean break along the mortar lines. The piece can zigzag all over the place, but it isn’t allowed to come back and touch itself anywhere, even at a corner. No holes allowed.

I’m counting the plain squares as the unit and each of the smaller rectangles as a half square. So far, the biggest chunk of repeating tiles I’ve managed to break out is 283 squares.


What Math Stories Will You Tell?

Have you and your children created any mathematical stories this year? I’d love to hear them! Please share your links in the comments section below.

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More Than One Way To Find the Center of a Circle

[Feature photo above by hom26 via Flickr.]

My free time lately has gone to local events and to book editing. I hope to put up a series of blog posts sometime soon, based on the Homeschool Math FAQs chapter I’m adding to the paperback version of Let’s Play Math. [And of course, I’ll update the ebook whenever I finally publish the paperback, so those of you who already bought a copy should be able to get the new version without paying extra.]

But in the meantime, as I was browsing my blog archives for an interesting “Throw-Back Thursday” post, I stumbled across this old geometry puzzle from Dave Marain over at MathNotations blog:

Is it possible that AB is a chord but NOT a diameter? That is, could circle ABC have a center that is NOT point O?

Jake shows Jack a piece of wood he cut out in the machine shop: a circular arc bounded by a chord. Jake claimed that the arc was not a semicircle. In fact, he claimed it was shorter than a semicircle, i.e., segment AB was not a diameter and arc ACB was less than 180 degrees.

Jack knew this was impossible and argued: “Don’t you see, Jake, that O must be the center of the circle and that OA, OB and OC are radii.”

Jake wasn’t buying this, since he had measured everything precisely. He argued that just because they could be radii didn’t prove they had to be.

Which boy do you agree with?

  • Pick one side of the debate, and try to find at least three different ways to prove your point.

If you have a student in geometry or higher math, print out the original post (but not the comments — it’s no fun when someone gives you the answer!) and see what he or she can do with it.

Dave offers many other puzzles to challenge your math students. While you are at his blog, do take some time to browse past articles.

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