(This is a bit of a follow-up to the solution reading post last month. Spoiler warnings: USAMO 2014/6, USAMO 2012/2, TSTST 2016/4, and hints for ELMO 2013/1, IMO 2016/2.)
I want to say a little about the process which I use to design my olympiad handouts and classes these days (and thus by extension the way I personally think about problems). The short summary is that my teaching style is centered around showing connections and recurring themes between problems.
Now let me explain this in more detail.
1. Main ideas
Solutions to olympiad problems can look quite different from one another at a surface level, but typically they center around one or two main ideas, as I describe in my post on reading solutions. Because details are easy to work out once you have the main idea, as far as learning is concerned you can more or less throw away the details and pay most of your attention to main ideas.
Thus whenever I solve an olympiad problem, I make a deliberate effort to summarize the solution in a few sentences, such that I basically know how to do it from there. I also make a deliberate effort, whenever I write up a solution in my notes, to structure it so that my future self can see all the key ideas at a glance and thus be able to understand the general path of the solution immediately.
If you look at any complete solution to the problem, you will see a lot of technical estimates involving and the like. But the main idea is very simple: “consider an table of primes and note the small primes cannot adequately cover the board, since ”. Once you have this main idea the technical estimates are just the grunt work that you force yourself to do if you’re a contestant (and don’t do if you’re retired like me).
Thus the study of olympiad problems is reduced to the study of main ideas behind these problems.
So how do we come up with the main ideas? Of course I won’t be able to answer this question completely, because therein lies most of the difficulty of olympiads.
But I do have some progress in this way. It comes down to seeing how main ideas are similar to each other. I spend a lot of time trying to classify the main ideas into categories or themes, based on how similar they feel to one another. If I see one theme pop up over and over, then I can make it into a class.
I think olympiad taxonomy is severely underrated, and generally not done correctly. The status quo is that people do bucket sorts based on the particular technical details which are present in the problem. This is correlated with the main ideas, but the two do not always coincide.
An example where technical sort works okay is Euclidean geometry. Here is a simple example: harmonic bundles in projective geometry. As I explain in my book, there are a few “basic” configurations involved:
- Midpoints and parallel lines
- The Ceva / Menelaus configuration
- Harmonic quadrilateral / symmedian configuration
- Apollonian circle (right angle and bisectors)
(For a reference, see Lemmas 2, 4, 5 and Exercise 0 here.) Thus from experience, any time I see one of these pictures inside the current diagram, I think to myself that “this problem feels projective”; and if there is a way to do so I try to use harmonic bundles on it.
An example where technical sort fails is the “pigeonhole principle”. A typical problem in such a class looks something like USAMO 2012/2.
It’s true that the official solution uses the words “pigeonhole principle” but that is not really the heart of the matter; the key idea is that you consider all possible rotations and count the number of incidences. (In any case, such calculations are better done using expected value anyways.)
Now why is taxonomy a good thing for learning and teaching? The reason is that building connections and seeing similarities is most easily done by simultaneously presenting several related problems. I’ve actually mentioned this already in a different blog post, but let me give the demonstration again.
Suppose I wrote down the following:
You can tell what each of the ‘s, ‘s, ‘s have in common by looking for a few moments. But what happens if I intertwine them?
This is the same information, but now you have to work much harder to notice the association between the letters and the numbers they’re next to.
This is why, if you are an olympiad student, I strongly encourage you to keep a journal or blog of the problems you’ve done. Solving olympiad problems takes lots of time and so it’s worth it to spend at least a few minutes jotting down the main ideas. And once you have enough of these, you can start to see new connections between problems you haven’t seen before, rather than being confined to thinking about individual problems in isolation. (Additionally, it means you will never have redo problems to which you forgot the solution — learn from my mistake here.)
3. Ten buckets of geometry
I want to elaborate more on geometry in general. These days, if I see a solution to a Euclidean geometry problem, then I mentally store the problem and solution into one (or more) buckets. I can even tell you what my buckets are:
- Direct angle chasing
- Power of a point / radical axis
- Homothety, similar triangles, ratios
- Recognizing some standard configuration (see Yufei for a list)
- Doing some length calculations
- Complex numbers
- Barycentric coordinates
- Harmonic bundles or pole/polar and homography
- Spiral similarity, Miquel points
which my dedicated fans probably recognize as the ten chapters of my textbook. (Problems may also fall in more than one bucket if for example they are difficult and require multiple key ideas, or if there are multiple solutions.)
Now whenever I see a new geometry problem, the diagram will often “feel” similar to problems in a certain bucket. Exactly what I mean by “feel” is hard to formalize — it’s a certain gut feeling that you pick up by doing enough examples. There are some things you can say, such as “problems which feature a central circle and feet of altitudes tend to fall in bucket 6”, or “problems which only involve incidence always fall in bucket 9”. But it seems hard to come up with an exhaustive list of hard rules that will do better than human intuition.
4. How do problems feel?
But as I said in my post on reading solutions, there are deeper lessons to teach than just technical details.
For examples of themes on opposite ends of the spectrum, let’s move on to combinatorics. Geometry is quite structured and so the themes in the main ideas tend to translate to specific theorems used in the solution. Combinatorics is much less structured and many of the themes I use in combinatorics cannot really be formalized. (Consequently, since everyone else seems to mostly teach technical themes, several of the combinatorics themes I teach are idiosyncratic, and to my knowledge are not taught by anyone else.)
For example, one of the unusual themes I teach is called Global. It’s about the idea that to solve a problem, you can just kind of “add up everything at once”, for example using linearity of expectation, or by double-counting, or whatever. In particular these kinds of approach ignore the “local” details of the problem. It’s hard to make this precise, so I’ll just give two recent examples.
If you look at the solutions to these problems, they have the same “feeling” of adding everything up, even though the specific techniques are somewhat different (double-counting for the former, diagonals modulo for the latter). Nonetheless, my experience with problems similar to the former was immensely helpful for the latter, and it’s why I was able to solve the IMO problem.
This perspective also explains why I’m relatively bad at functional equations. There are some things I can say that may be useful (see my handouts), but much of the time these are just technical tricks. (When sorting functional equations in my head, I have a bucket called “standard fare” meaning that you “just do work”; as far I can tell this bucket is pretty useless.) I always feel stupid teaching functional equations, because I never have many good insights to say.
Part of the reason is that functional equations often don’t have a main idea at all. Consequently it’s hard for me to do useful taxonomy on them.
Then sometimes you run into something like the windmill problem, the solution of which is fairly “novel”, not being similar to problems that come up in training. I have yet to figure out a good way to train students to be able to solve windmill-like problems.
I’ll close by mentioning one common way I come up with a theme.
Sometimes I will run across an olympiad problem which I solve quickly, and think should be very easy, and yet once I start grading I find that the scores are much lower than I expected. Since the way I solve problems is by drawing experience from similar previous problems, this must mean that I’ve subconsciously found a general framework to solve problems like , which is not obvious to my students yet. So if I can put my finger on what that framework is, then I have something new to say.
The most recent example I can think of when this happened was TSTST 2016/4 which was given last June (and was also a very elegant problem, at least in my opinion).
I solved this problem very quickly when we were drafting the TSTST exam, figuring out the solution while walking to dinner. So I was quite surprised when I looked at the scores for the problem and found out that empirically it was not that easy.
After I thought about this, I have a new tentative idea. You see, when doing this problem I really was thinking about “what does this operation do?”. You can think of as an infinite tuple
of prime exponents. Then the can be thought of as an operation which takes each nonzero component, decreases it by one, and then adds some particular vector back. For example, if then is decreased by one and each of and are increased by one. In any case, if you look at this behavior for long enough you will see that the coordinate is a natural way to “track time” in successive operations; once you figure this out, getting the bound of is quite natural. (Details left as exercise to reader.)
Now when I read through the solutions, I found that many of them had not really tried to think of the problem in such a “structured” way, and had tried to directly solve it by for example trying to prove (which is false) or something similar to this. I realized that had the students just ignored the task “prove ” and spent some time getting a better understanding of the structure, they would have had a much better chance at solving the problem. Why had I known that structural thinking would be helpful? I couldn’t quite explain it, but it had something to do with the fact that the “main object” of the question was “set in stone”; there was no “degrees of freedom” in it, and it was concrete enough that I felt like I could understand it. Once I understood how multiple operations behaved, the bit about almost served as an “answer extraction” mechanism.
These thoughts led to the recent development of a class which I named Rigid, which is all about problems where the point is not to immediately try to prove what the question asks for, but to first step back and understand completely how a particular rigid structure (like the in this problem) behaves, and to then solve the problem using this understanding.