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In a classical course on Euclidean, compass-and-ruler geometry, Thales' theorem has always had a prominent place. However, as the Wikipedia article says,

It is equivalent to the theorem about ratios in similar triangles,

which seems to be conceptually easier for most students (I don't have any hard data for that, but this is both my and my colleagues' experience). So my question is: should we teach Thales' theorem? If yes, should we expect the students to actually use this particular result (as opposed to ratios in similar triangles)?

Note that I am strongly opposed against purely pragmatic approach to teaching – I think that we should teach people many things that are not directly useful, but are an important part of our culture (Latin language being a classical (pun intended;-)) example) – so an argument like "it is not needed to solve problems, so it should not be taught" is not at all convincing.

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What "classical course on Euclidean, compass-and-ruler geometry" are you referring to? I've looked through several high-school geometry textbooks, and none of them seem to have this theorem. –  Jim Belk Apr 24 at 1:17
    
Well, every Polish high-school textbook. Thales' Theorem is a required part of a state-enforced curriculum. –  mbork Apr 24 at 5:33

2 Answers 2

Sadly, the time you (and your students) have available for this is finite. So one has to weigh usefulness carefully. Also, easier to understand is often paramount in teaching. So I'd go for similar triangles (wider usefulness, easier to understand).

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I'm also leaning towards exactly this approach – but I want to hear from teachers more experienced than me. –  mbork Apr 23 at 19:59

NB. This reply mistakenly focused on a different Thales' Theorem. So it is not relevant to the posed question.


I would just like to point out that Thales' Theorem plays a key role in Delaunay triangulations, which are a central topic in computational geometry and meshing algorithms. Were Thales' Theorem connected to these cutting-edge topics, it might be seen as more relevant and important. How to reach high-school teachers with this connection is a significant challenge...
      VD&DT
      (Red dual graph is the Delaunay triangulation.
      Image from Discrete and Computational Geometry, which invokes Thales' Theorem four times.)
Let me try to address Jim Belk's (excellent) question. What is important is the relationship depicted below: $A > B > C$. That it can be proved by similar triangles does not diminish the importance of the nonobvious conclusion.
      Thales
To know that Thales' Theorem plays a role in what students see in The Lord of the Rings or The Game of Thrones could make it more relevant.

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But why use Thales' Theorem for these proofs instead of similar triangles? It seems to me that Thales' theorem is just a more complicated version of the same idea. –  Jim Belk Apr 24 at 1:00
    
I am addressing Thales' Theorem as described here. I now see there are several "Thales' Theorems" ... –  Joseph O'Rourke Apr 24 at 1:13
    
I think the OP was talking about this Thales' Theorem. –  Jim Belk Apr 24 at 1:13
    
@JimBelk: Apologies, Jim & everyone, I was unaware there are two such theorems! Consider my answer a reply to an as-yet unasked question. :-) –  Joseph O'Rourke Apr 24 at 1:15
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By the way, since it came up, I'd like to mention that your geometry book is absolutely fantastic. –  Jim Belk Apr 24 at 1:20

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