## Thinking > Symbols

As if having to wear a mask while flying isn’t scary enough, last week I had a harrowing experience.

See Valentin Kirilov’s full video at https://vimeo.com/156775315.

It’s normally a three-hour flight from Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories to Portland, but about 20 minutes into a recent flight, there was an unsettling noise followed by an announcement from the pilot: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain. Please don’t be alarmed by the noise you just heard near the left wing. Let me assure you that everything is okay. We’ve lost an engine, but the other three engines are working just fine. They’ll get us to Portland safely. But instead of taking 3 hours, it’s going to take 4 hours.”

She said this matter-of-factly, as if she were commenting on the color of my shirt or pointing to a squirrel that was enjoying an acorn. It was reassuring that she didn’t seem worried — but still, we had lost an engine! The cabin grew quiet as we waited to see what would happen next. But, nothing. We continued to fly as if nothing had happened, and the din of conversation slowly resumed.

And then there was another noise near the right wing, followed by the pilot: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain again. Unfortunately, we’ve lost another engine. But the two remaining engines are functioning properly. We’re going to get you to Portland safely, but now it’s gonna take about 6 hours.”

Needless to say, you could hear a pin drop as we passengers waited with baited breath. And sure enough, there was another noise, and the pilot again: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve lost a third engine, but we’ll make it safely to Portland with the one engine we’ve got left. It’s just gonna take 12 hours.”

That was when the guy in the seat next to me lost it. “I sure hope we don’t lose that last engine,” he yelled, “or we’re gonna be up here all day!”

That story isn’t true. None of it. Not. One. Single. Fact. I mean, come on! Yellowknife? Why would I need to go to Yellowknife? To brush up on my Dogrib?

But the following story is true.

My honorary niece Ivy occasionally calls for help with math. Not surprisingly, the frequency of calls has increased with online learning during the pandemic. This is a modified version of a question about which she recently called:

A plane traveling against the wind traveled 2,460 miles in 6 hours. Traveling with the wind on the return trip, it only took 5 hours. What was the speed of the plane? What was the speed of the wind?

It’s assumed that the plane flew at the same average speed in both directions and that the wind was equally strong throughout. On a standardized test, those assumptions would need to be stated explicitly. But on this blog, I make the rules, and I refuse to add more words to explain reasonable assumptions without which the problem would be impossible to solve.

As presented to Ivy in an online homework assignment, the problem stated that x should represent the plane’s speed and y should represent the speed of the wind. My first question was, “Why? What’s wrong with p and w as the variables for plane and wind, respectively?” But my second, and perhaps more important, question was, “Why are they forcing algebra on a problem that is much easier without it?”

Somewhere, many years ago, someone decided that the methods of substitution and elimination were critically important, if not for success in life then at least for success in high school. Anecdotally, this seems to be true; I was a bad-ass systems-of-equations solver in high school, and I was also the captain of the track team that won the county title, so… yeah. Sadly, that someone seemed to put less stock in a slightly more critical skill: thinking.

Here’s the deal. Against the wind, the plane covered 2,460 miles in 6 hours, so the plane’s speed on the way out was 410 miles per hour. With the wind, the plane covered those same 2,460 miles in just 5 hours, so the plane’s speed on the way back was 492 miles per hour. Since the wind is constant in both directions, the unaided speed of the plane must have been 451 miles per hour, exactly halfway between the against-the-wind and with-the-wind speeds. Visually,

The top portion of that diagram represents the plane flying against the wind; the bottom portion represents the plane flying with the wind. This makes it obvious that the the unaided speed of the plane is equidistant from 410 miles per hour and 492 miles per hour, and that distance is the speed of the wind.

Algebraically, the problem might be solved like this…

$6 \cdot (x - y) = 2460 \rightarrow x - y = 410 \\ 5 \cdot (x + y) = 2460 \rightarrow x + y = 492$

which is no different than the logical approach above: x ‑ y is the speed of the plane against the wind, and x + y is the speed of the plane with the wind, so the numbers are obviously the same. But using algebra just seems so much more… cumbersome.

Students in elementary classrooms often explain their thinking with drawings and diagrams. Unfortunately, some of that great thought is abandoned when students take a course called Algebra, and the mechanical skill of symbolic manipulation replaces the mathematical skill of logical reasoning. That’s a tragedy. As Jim Rubillo, former executive director at NCTM, used to say, “We have to stop being so symbol‑minded.”

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