Thursday, March 19, 2009

Why Study Algebra?

"Why study math?"
This was a question that I, as a math major, asked somewhat rhetorically to K-12 educators in Ohio. I was stunned with the responses I received.

"It's important that all students know how to do math" was a reply I received from a top state education official. Okay, but then what do teachers do in school after the 4th grade, by which time kids are expected to be able to "do math"? We were in the midst of the state's efforts to institute standards-based reform, so my question was of serious importance.

I met with the chairs of the mathematics departments of my state's public universities. They were delighted to speak with a chancellor who was a mathematician and explained that "doing" math was, of course, a foundation skill, but all students needed to learn much more. Algebra instruction, for example, was a way to develop analytical problem solving abilities in students. This problem solving ability goes beyond algebra problems; while the techniques are taught in algebra, they apply to all problems. Their point on algebra was of major significance, because algebra was right at the heart of the standards debate.

So many parents have complained "Why does my child need to learn algebra? I took algebra and I never use it!" This conclusion is so common that it has even been memorialized by Hollywood. In Peggy Sue Got Married, the title character is a housewife and mother who is sent back in time to her high school years. As seen in a 49-second clip from the movie, she blows off an algebra test because, as she explains to her algebra teacher, she knows she won't ever use it.

While it's understandable that a typical parent might feel as Peggy Sue did about algebra, I was really shocked when a local teacher's union representative echoed the same conclusion when he complained in the media that the state's new high school graduation exam was too difficult, since it tested algebra knowledge.

I believe it's important to speak plainly and openly with parents and the public. It may be true that few of our kids will have to solve quadratic equations after their school years. But don't you think they'll have to solve problems? In fact, most businesspeople I've spoken to say that one of the basic abilities they need in their employees is to solve problems they've never seen before.

In our school curricula, algebra is the main subject in which our kids are taught to solve problems in a systematic, analytic manner. Unfortunately, algebra taught poorly results in students learning only how to mimic problem solving methods that they've been forced to memorize. But algebra taught well gets students on the path to developing that skill of "solving problems they've never seen before" that employers are demanding and is an important foundation for further learning.

Might the reason that educators, union officials, and parents haven't understood the importance of algebra in our kids' education is that so few of them learned it properly themselves? More thoughts on this to come.


  1. I totally agree with this! I am currently in an education program with intents to teach high school mathematics and see the issue of "but when are we ever going to use this??" all the time. I find that when you tell them something such as the speed a car was traveling before a car hit its brakes by using the tire marks is through calculus, most people are shocked that such a common, everyday occurrence is done through math.

  2. Annual Interest = Interest rate x Loan Principal

    This is perhaps the most important algebra question we need to answer today, and this is why Bernake's 4% mortgage loan is so important that it may save America.

  3. I asked myself the same question during math lessons at school and till the end of k12 teachers couldn't find that additional motivation for me. I just couldn't understand the practical point of this subject.