Category Archives: Anything I Can Throw

The All I Can Throwers – #3. More sessions with Den and Jenna.

It was a great pleasure to be working with a couple of pupils I knew would accept any challenge I offered, so you won’t be surprised to know that we spent two or three sessions exploring all the ideas around Stars that I wrote about in several recent posts.

I may well have been the only teacher in the country disappointed that the end of the summer term was coming up fast, but there was still time for one further session.  I really don’t think there’s any exploration more accessible and productive than the Tower of Hanoi.  It’s intensely practical and visual and you need just two simple rules.  I was using it with two very bright nine-yearolds, but I’ve used it both with teachers and with much younger children – one teacher used it with her Reception class “Baby Teddy can sit on Mummy Teddy’s lap or Daddy Teddy’s lap ….” and it worked a treat.

There’s so much to find that even now I’m still discovering new aspects, but it won’t take long to start wondering how many moves it takes to move a stack of 3, a stack of 4, a stack of 5, …., or to observe a dazzling array of patterns and movement rules.

If you need refreshing on the rules and background there must be hundreds of websites devoted to the problem, with diagrams, formulae, and animations.  Many of them spoil the fun, but you’ll easily find all the information you could possibly want and much more besides.

In the spring I used it with a Masterclass group of Y6 children and we dealt with numbers up to quintillions, and derived a procedure to allow them to solve the puzzle for a stack of any size.  We used boxes gleaned from the supermarket, and I was struck that for these children it’s probably rather rare that they get they chance to  manipulate apparatus.  It seems a little sad, but I suspect that one reason they enjoyed the session so much was that there was a strong element of play involved.  There were 30 people in the group and next year the organiser has decided she wants to invite 90.  Collecting enough boxes will be a massive task, and we’re hoping we can persuade IKEA to sponsor us with a few dozen sets of their toddlers’ stacking cups at £1.50 a set.







The All I Can Throwers – Sessions with Den and Jenna. #2 continued – An Amazing Prediction

The previous post used an activity where cards have different numbers on each side, and the possible totals are found.

I followed that by using another set of numbered cards. There were six in the set, each with a different number on each side, i.e. there were twelve different numbers in all. I gave Jenna and Den a free choice of which number should be face up on each of the cards, and gave them an opportunity to revise their choice. I asked them to add the six numbers on display – and then produced a sealed envelope which they opened to find I’d predicted the correct total in advance!

You don’t have to work very hard on presentation for your audience to be wholly baffled. I performed the trick with a set of eight cards in South Africa, and the audience included Toni Beardon, who’s the founder of NRICH and a very clever person indeed. I treasure the look of complete amazement on her face when the sealed envelope was opened and the prediction displayed.

I encouraged Jenna and Den to inspect the cards carefully. Their first observation was that each had an odd number one side and an even number the other. Secondly, on each card the even number was the lower one. Thirdly, on each, the odd number was 17 more than the even number.

So the total of the numbers on display would always be the sum of the six even numbers, plus 17 for however many odds were visible.

From the work earlier in the session the children told me there would be 64 possible arrangements.   A significant number of these – twenty – show three odds and three evens, and that’s the situation I need to see for the trick to work. It doesn’t matter which three odds /three evens they are, and on about one occasion in three this will happen anyway, but Jenna and Den’s original selection showed four odds and two evens. So I invited them to “do a further randomisation” and turn over one of the six, and not surprisingly they turned one of the four odds. So we now had my desired situation of three odds and three evens, and the total had to be 51 more than the total of the six even numbers and it was safe to open the envelope.

Of course, it’s possible the “further randomisation” doesn’t do what you want, and you’re now looking at five odds and one even, at which point you need to request a final randomisation of two cards – but whenever I’ve done it one randomisation has been sufficient, and frequently the initial arrangement does the trick and you can open the envelope immediately.

Performing has always been part of teaching, and hamming up the amount of choice you’re giving the children not only disguises the fact that you’re actually controlling the situation, but should make the opening of the envelope both dramatic and amazing.




The All I Can Throwers – Sessions with Den and Jenna. #2 – Two Cards

For my second session with Jenna and Den I used another of my long-time favourite number activities.   It another one that’s very accessible but can make people think quite hard.

On each side of a card square write a number. You don’t actually have to use a different number on each side, and they don’t actually have to be whole numbers, but that’s what most people do. And on another piece of card do things similarly – again, you don’t have to use whole numbers, and they don’t actually have to be different from the ones on the first card, but that’s what usually happens.

Now toss the two cards as if they were coins, and add the two numbers you see. Do it again, and record the totals you see; do this until you’re satisfied you’re not going to get any new totals.

If you do this with a class some groups are likely to find they’ve made three different totals, and some will find they’ve got four. If they have two new pieces of card and number these, do they still get three (or four) totals? Can they discover how you ensure you always get three different totals, or four different totals?

With only a small number of children I may steer it in a different direction. Here’s the account I wrote up for school of what happened with Jenna and Den, including some false starts and blind alleys:

Today I asked them to devise two double-sided cards with different numbers on each face, so that the four possible totals they could display would give a set of consecutive numbers. Before long they found – not quite by accident, but not completely by design (Den had first decided that one card should be 0/1, and suggested 3/4 for the other) – the cards 0/1 and 2/4, which generate 0+2, 1+2, 0+4, 1+4 (i.e. 2,3,4,5).

 I asked them to find a second set and Jenna offered 2/3 and 4/6, making 6,7,8,9.

 I asked them to generalise from this and they suggested one card had to be even / odd and the other even / even, but it didn’t take long to find a counter-example, before Den came up with the correct suggestion that the numbers on one card should have a difference of 1, and on the other a difference of 2.

 I asked them to explore the situation with three cards. They thought there would be six combinations, and Jenna suggested the cards would need differences of 1, 2, and 3. They used a logical process to derive each combination in turn, and both contributed equally. Having reached six they realised there would be eight possibilities, and they observed that each number appeared in four combinations and were able to use this to check they had a complete set. However, one of the totals in their set was repeated, and Jenna then suggested the cards needed to show differences of 1, 2, and 4 (rather than 1, 2, and 3).

 They wanted to explore four cards, which Jenna suggested would need to display differences of 1, 2, 4, and 8. They quickly devised the set 2/3, 7/5, 4/8, and 9/1.   Den thought there would be 12 combinations, but they again used their logical strategy for generating every combination, and so decided there would be 16. They found these with no slips, and found the 16 showed every total from 12 to 27, once each.

It was fun working with these two All I Can Throwers, but in some ways I prefer using Two Cards with students whose thinking isn’t so streamlined.   Jenna and Den did offer a couple of suggestions which didn’t work out, but they immediately corrected them and got back on track, so they missed out on a lot of the red herrings that most people might experience. Incidentally, I was intrigued that in both the explorations they’d done so far neither of them had shown the slightest inclination to make notes or do any recording on paper.

Actually, this exploration was only half of what we did in the session, and I’ll tell you about the other activity in my next post.




Consecutive Numbers again – and Roof Numbers

Enough people have noticed the Consecutive Numbers piece to justify a follow-up.

Discovering just which numbers can’t be made by summing a set of consecutive positive whole numbers is such an elegant and surprising result it brings a smile to the face.   On the way – and worthy of being an enquiry in its own right – is the key observation that while any set of three consecutive numbers sums to a multiple of 3, four consecutive numbers do not sum to a multiple of 4.

There are other spinoffs as well.

* Those sets which start with 1, e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4 sum to give the triangular numbers.

* What if you do the Consecutive Numbers enquiry with just the consecutive odd numbers? In this case, of course, those sets which start with 1 (e.g. 1, 3, 5) sum to give the square numbers.

* Which rather suggests that if you use numbers from the series 1, 4, 7, 10, 13, … you ought to find something interesting.


And that leads me to Roof Numbers, which you probably won’t have heard of. I was asked to work with some B.Ed. students, and in every respect except one I was given a totally free hand. So I was able to create a course built around exploratory maths, and a quite wonderful term it was too (I was asked to give them a second course the following year, and they insisted I was a guest to their graduation).

The fly in the ointment was the university’s requirement that I set a timed unseen written examination.  But at least I got to set it, and Roof Numbers were my response. If the Consecutive Numbers question is a highly open problem, then Roof Numbers are hyper-open.

Here’s the problem:

Start with a bottom row of dots.

Above it, add a row which is three shorter than the bottom row.

Keep going till you feel like stopping, or until it’s impossible to carry on.

You have made a Roof Number.


                 o o o o o

            o o o o o o o o  

       o o o o o o o o o o o  

So 24 is a (level 3) Roof Number.


11 is a level 2 Roof Number:

                o o o o

           o o o o o o o

What can you find out about Roof Numbers?


I promised anyone who was desperate could buy a hint, but I knew perfectly well that anyone who’d spent a term doing problem-solving investigative mathematics would be able to spend their hour finding out interesting things, such as:

* are there numbers which are roof numbers in more than one way?

* are there numbers which cannot be made as roof numbers?

* what can you find out about level 3 (for example) roof numbers?

* …?

And since the step size of 3 is wholly arbitrary, you could just as well have roof numbers where the step size is 4, or 2 – and if the step size is 1, then you get the original Consecutive Numbers enquiry as simply a special example of Roof Numbers.






The All I Can Throwers – Sessions with Den and Jenna. #1 – Consecutive Numbers

I think most of us are pretty uncomfortable with labels like “slow learners”, “less able” etc. And terms like “gifted”, “quick”, “high ability” aren’t much better. Apart from anything else, many are highly pejorative and they all suggest that everyone has a fixed level of learning.

All the same, I do from time to time meet children who do have the experience and background that lets me know they can take all I can throw at them, and recently I had the chance to work with a couple of them for a few weeks. The challenge was not to accelerate them through the syllabus but to give them the opportunity to explore some ideas at greater depth than is normally possible.

So what did I do with my All I Can Throwers? In looking for ideas I had many of the same criteria I’d use for any group, but basically I wanted themes that were accessible, intriguing, offered scope for asking questions, and lots of things to find out.

My first almost chose itself. I was asked to go to Cambridge a while back to talk to NRICH about my favourite activities and we both agreed that number 1 on our list would be the Consecutive Numbers question.

  • I can write 12 as the sum of three consecutive numbers; 12 = 3 + 4 + 5
  • Another example: 9 = 4 + 5
  • Another: 14 = 2 + 3 + 4 + 5
  • (and some numbers can be made in more than one way: 21 = 10 + 11, and also 21 = 5 + 6 + 7).

So the question is whether all numbers can be made in this way.

In truth, it’s the perfect enquiry for almost anyone. It’s immediately accessible using the simplest arithmetic, and offers scope to explore in your own way. There’s lots of scope for formulating questions, making observations, and reasoning and generalising. Perhaps best of all, it gives up its secrets gradually. It won’t take long to make the first observation, which explains half of all numbers, but others may take a little longer. There are further generalisations on the way, each adding a little more to the understanding.

Some of these discoveries will be made by any pupil who tackles the question, but there’s a final gorgeous climax in store for those who, like my pupils Den and Jenna, are able to dig deep and make generalisations. It had been a great way to spend my first hour with them, and with just five minutes to go they realised, and were able to explain, just which numbers cannot be made as the sum of consecutive numbers. But you don’t have to have a Den or Jenna in your group – it’s a great topic to explore (and makes for a fine display for the first parents’ evening of the year).