Engaging students: Distinguishing between axioms, postulates, theorems, and corollaries

In my capstone class for future secondary math teachers, I ask my students to come up with ideas for engaging their students with different topics in the secondary mathematics curriculum. In other words, the point of the assignment was not to devise a full-blown lesson plan on this topic. Instead, I asked my students to think about three different ways of getting their students interested in the topic in the first place.

I plan to share some of the best of these ideas on this blog (after asking my students’ permission, of course).

This student submission comes from my former student Roderick Motes. His topic, from Geometry: distinguishing between axioms, postulates, theorems, and corollaries.

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How could you as a teacher create an activity or project that involves your topic?

This topic lends itself well to projects, and to activities. Axiom systems are fundamental to the study of math. In high school geometry in particular we start to ask students to do proofs. When students begins proofs it’s important that we define what we’re working with. All students know definitions, these tell us what the objects ARE. Postulates and Axioms tell us the most basic rules of how an object behaves.

There are various options you can use to communicate the differences here. My suggestion would be to take an interesting, visual, and intuitive problem and find the simplest rule set you can. Find the rules from which you can easily (though not trivially) solve the question. Take for example the Seven Bridges of Konnisburg. The website http://www.mathsisfun.com/activity/seven-bridges-konigsberg.html has a GREAT activity based around the Seven Bridges problem. Towards the middle, after the initial exploration, the activity introduces some vocabulary central to the student of graphs. The definitions are, as Euclid would have them, definitions. The activity then assumes some things implicitly:

“A path leads into a vertex by one edge and out of the vertex by a second edge.”

This is an example of an axiom.

With careful choice of activity you can distinguish between theorem and corollary.  In geometry in particular we can use the theorem that opposite angles are congruent to quickly prove that the sum of the angles when a line cuts another is 4 right angles. This is a quick corollary, and so the difference between corollary and theorem could be shown AS PART OF an activity you already have.

So there are really two places that you can fit this. Adapting an explore will allow you to quickly demonstrate the difference between theorem and corollary. Having students prove solutions from axioms is another method of showing everything.

Below I have included several axiom systems you could fit in. Euclids Elements defines Euclidean Geometry, and so whenever you are proving something from there you could consider adapting your activity to require proof from axioms and prior proofs.

Peano axiomatized the basics of number theory. You could potentially adapt this if you’re teaching middle school, but that would be more tricky. Alligator Eggs is a GREAT manipulative for advanced high school students who are going to be taking computer science around the same time. Alligator eggs has cut outs, colors, gives definitions, and shows the axiomatic assumptions of typed lambda calculus in a greatly intuitive way (chomp chomp chomp.)





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What interesting things can you say about the people who contributed to the discovery and/or the development of this topic? 

The axiomatic method took us a while to work the kinks out of and, accordingly, it’s history is rife with interesting figures. We can start at the beginnings with Euclid though, to be fair to those before him, his work built upon the works of the Pythagoreans, Plato, and Theaetetus (the first two of which have countless fun asides you can discuss.) Euclid wrote down his ‘postulates and common notions’ and proceeded to build up Euclidean Geometry from them.  Euclid is a rather mysterious figure for all we know about him. He is alleged to have published many books. Interestingly he is thought to have published the book “Music: Elements of Music” in which he extends on the Pythagoreans musings on the connection between intervals in music, and mathematics.

After the Greeks the seat of mathematical progress moved to the Middle East. During this time many mathematicians would continue to use the axiomatic method of Euclid, but none doubted his own axioms save for a few. Among these men was one Omar Al-Khayyam. Al-Khayyam raised some objections to Euclids use of the 5th postulate (the parallel postulate.) This same objection would later be noted and used as the basis for the study of non-euclidean geometries. Outside of mathematics Al-Khayyam was an interesting man. He was a poet as well as a mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer. Quite interesting he was brazen enough to publish the idea that the year was actually 365.24219858156 days. I say it was a brazen idea because the degree to which he was claiming accuracy was more or less unheard of for astronomical calculations at the time. What’s amazing is how right he was. His calculation is accurate to the sixth decimal place which, we now know, actually varies naturally. It would be like someone coming into a room and telling you that you are 5.62536412 feet tall based on their calculations and then having them be correct.

After Al-Khayyam the next most notable figures in the refinement of the axiomatic method are probably Hilbert, who refined Euclids axiom system, Whitehead and Russell (who tried and failed to axiomatize ALL of mathematics,) and Cantor. A quick search on the internet will pull up many many interesting facts, but here are some of my favorites:

  • “David Hilbert used to have a garden attached to his house, with a chalkboard allowing him to do research out in the fresh air. Reportedly, he would stand at the board working for periods of time, but would occasionally, without warning, hop onto his bicycle, make a circuit or two of the garden’s path, then just as abruptly hop off and return to his chalkboard.”
  •  “Bertrand Russell (British mathematician) – reported in print as having died in 1937, had to have his obituary reprinted when he actually died in 1970.”

Cantor is particularly interesting, I think, since his mathematics earned him such admonition as a “scientific charlatan”, a “renegade” and a “corrupter of youth.” It wasn’t until the tail end of his life, having been driven to fits of madness and depression, that he finally started to be realized as one of the great mathematicians, and his set theory to be one of mathematics crowning achievements.


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How does this topic extend what your students should have learned in previous courses?

Axiomatic methods can be used to prove everything is true (well… mostly. Incompleteness Theorem throws a wrench into the works but is well beyond the scope of a high school course.) Have the students ever wondered why we factorize things into primes? Or wondered how any of the mechanical routines they’ve learned (like synthetic division) can be justified or proven? If so, then they’ve been looking for the same kind of path that we’ve taken all throughout Math 4050.

We take some simple basic principles about numbers, and show that they have complex consequences. Moreover we show that we can extend these principles to many different areas. In geometry in particular we can give geometric, visual, intuitive ideas some very rigorous backing. Moreover much of Euclids Elements gives us an intuition for algebra without explicitly using it. Consider when Euclid proves Pythagorean Theorem. Nowadays we say a2 + b2 = c2 . But Euclid actually proves it by showing that the area of a square with side A, plus the area of a square with side B sum to the area of a square with sides C. He takes the literal square of the sides, and shows they are equal. This is a very interesting way you could discuss these points, and connect back with your students.

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