This come via Lois Burke on twitter, and immediately Max shows up with a possible explanation.
ooh, nice one! Maybe 5i^2 = 5-1 = 4? Like i^2 means go down by 1, not change the sign?
— Max Ray-Riek (@maxrayriek) June 21, 2016
Dave has a different idea. Maybe the student was thinking in words — “5 and minus 1” — and this turns into its homonym “5-1.”
Oh, I read yours as they wrote 5-1 = 4. I was saying they used "minus" instead of "negative" to confusion
— David Petersen (@calcdave) June 21, 2016
Personally, what I have the easiest time imagining is that the student just had “combine 5 and -1” on their mental ledger. When it came time to address that ledger, there was so much other stuff they were paying attention to that they slipped into the most natural sort of way to combine numbers they had, which is adding. (I like the metaphor of slipping. You’d very rarely see a kid slip in the other direction — from 5 + (-1) to 5 x (-1) — I think. There is a direction to this error.)
Here are the activities we came up with to help develop this sort of thinking in class. Ideas for improvement? More ideas? Other explanations of the student’s thinking?
Pam Harris has an idea:
I like. What do you think about this ketchup problem? pic.twitter.com/zoMINk4AOh
— Pam Harris (@pwharris) June 22, 2016
Love it. Here’s a digital version.
John Golden point out that there might be issues with the Which One Doesn’t Belong puzzle, so I offer this as an alternative.
John also offers a different problem string: “I’d be curious to see 5+i, 5+i^2, 5+i^3, 5+i^4, 5i, 5i^2, 5i^3, 5i^4.”