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Surds inquiry

     
I could not believe this prompt was true when I first saw it. The equation comes from Rachael Read, a teacher I worked with in 2006-07 on a national programme run by the Leading Edge schools (UK). One of her year 10 students had stumbled across it. We can only wonder at the levels of enthusiasm and excitement that must have been generated in a lesson that gives a student the freedom to 'stumble' upon something like this. The prompt that I have subsequently developed has caused many audiences (students and adults alike) similar doubts to mine. Typical responses start with, "It can't be true ... can it?"
   
This prompt is suitable for students with high prior attainment in years 10 and 11. In the classroom, students are quickly hooked in to the prompt, particularly when one of them claims it 'works' after 
checking on a calculator. My classes have usually selected the regulatory card "Ask the teacher to explain", thereby inviting the teacher to instruct them in how to manipulate surds. The inquiry might then follow one of two pathways. Either students opt to practice the manipulations in order to become fluent or, if confident, they will explore the peculiarities of the prompt in order to produce more examples of the same type (see mathematical notes below).
Andrew Blair
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True or false?
Stuart Price used the surds prompt for his first lesson with a new year 12 A-level class. He reports that it "opened many cans of worms." The lesson finished with two lines of reasoning (below). One line shows the prompt to be true; the other shows it to be false. Stuart added that "the best part was ending the lesson with the students still looking for the mistake."

Stuart is a teacher of mathematics at Hurtwood House (Surrey, UK). You can follow him on twitter @sxpmaths.
  
It can’t be true ... can it?
The prompt received widespread coverage on social media in April 2016. Richard Green (a mathematician) posted it for his 115 000 followers on Google+ under the title 'It can’t be true ... can it?' More than 150 comments were posted with some arguing about a perceived ambiguity in the presentation of the prompt. Others debated its educational value. You can read the original post and comments here.
  
First publication
The first publication of the prompt we have found is in Gardiner's Mathematical Puzzling (1987). He says that "it just so happens" that the prompt is true and invites readers to work out how many other equations there are like the one in the prompt. In his 'commentary', Gardiner asserts there are lots and reminds us that √(22/3) means 'root two and two thirds', which is √(2 + 2/3), whereas 2√(2/3) means 2 x √(2/3). Later in the book Gardiner suggests four ways to tackle the problem (see extract below).

We thank Jason King for contacting Inquiry Maths with the reference. You can follow Jason on twitter @jasonaking2011.
Alternative prompts
Aine Carroll‏ posted this picture on twitter. She used the prompt with her year 9 class, reporting that the inquiry involved "lots of amazing conversation and discovery of simplifying surds." Aine described the lesson as an "excellent first inquiry" with the students.

The record of a discussion about the prompt that occurred in a year 10 class can be read here.
   
Kelly Anne Garner devised this prompt for her middle school students at the Frankfurt International School. She hoped it would lead students to wonder about negative integers, cube roots, exponents within the roots and the roots of non-square numbers. Kelly posted the picture of the students' questions and observations (above) on twitter. She reported that during the inquiry there was "lots of discussion, learning and sharing."
  
Richard Mills and Tung Tran, secondary school teachers in north London, devised the prompt during a school training day when they were collaboratively planning an inquiry lesson. Once the class verifies the truth of the prompt, the inquiry could lead into finding similar statements. Students could set themselves the target of finding a surd that is a third of another, a quarter of another and so on. For example, √(27) is a third of √(243) and √(8) is a quarter of √(128)A further challenge sees students looking for a surd that is two-thirds or three-quarters of another. For the first case, √(216) is two-thirds of √(486).