In a recent class with my future secondary math teachers, we had a fascinating discussion concerning how a teacher should respond to the following question from a student:

Is it ever possible to prove a statement or theorem by proving a special case of the statement or theorem?

Usually, the answer is no. In this series of posts, we’ve seen that a conjecture could be true for the first 40 cases or even the first cases yet not always be true. We’ve also explored the computational evidence for various unsolved problems in mathematics, noting that even this very strong computational evidence, by itself, does not provide a proof for all possible cases.

However, there are plenty of examples in mathematics where it is possible to prove a theorem by first proving a special case of the theorem. For the remainder of this series, I’d like to list, in no particular order, some common theorems used in secondary mathematics which are typically proved by first proving a special case.

2. Theorem. In where , , and , we have .

This is typically proven using the Pythagorean theorem:

Lemma. In right triangle , where is a right angle, we have .

Though it usually isn’t thought of this way, the Pythagorean theorem is a special case of the Law of Cosines since .

There are well over 100 different proofs of the Pythagorean theorem that do not presuppose the Law of Cosines. The standard proof of the Law of Cosines then uses the Pythagorean theorem. In other words, a special case of the Law of Cosines is used to prove the Law of Cosines.

I'm a Professor of Mathematics and a University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of North Texas. For eight years, I was co-director of Teach North Texas, UNT's program for preparing secondary teachers of mathematics and science.
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