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Is Algebra Necessary? -

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I am torn on this idea...The reason math scores have become more important is because grade inflation is every other course. Math scores show a slightly more accurate sign of intelligence (and yes there are different types of intelligence, but doing mathwork also takes discipline). Yet, I hated the way math classes are taught. It ruined something I really enjoyed.

I am all for the teaching more practical lessons throughout K-12, too, regardless of getting rid of the higher math. Students should know how to handle their money, calculate their expenses, do their own taxes, etc.


Instead of investing so much of our academic energy in a subject that blocks further attainment for much of our population, I propose that we start thinking about alternatives. Thus mathematics teachers at every level could create exciting courses in what I call “citizen statistics.” This would not be a backdoor version of algebra, as in the Advanced Placement syllabus. Nor would it focus on equations used by scholars when they write for one another. Instead, it would familiarize students with the kinds of numbers that describe and delineate our personal and public lives.

It could, for example, teach students how the Consumer Price Index is computed, what is included and how each item in the index is weighted — and include discussion about which items should be included and what weights they should be given.

This need not involve dumbing down. Researching the reliability of numbers can be as demanding as geometry. More and more colleges are requiring courses in “quantitative reasoning.” In fact, we should be starting that in kindergarten.

Compare this article with this other from the New Yorker

Maybe algebra is a Kobayashi Maru for some kids, showing them they can't always succeed. I do agree with a point the author briefly made, which was to make more theoretical subjects meaningful by connecting them to applied examples like the consumer price index. But mostly I thought it was a mess of an article. It sounded to me more like the author had a bad teacher. Like all hard subjects, a good teacher imparts love of the subject, a bad one leaves you forever afraid to try again.

I loved alegebra. It turned the misery of pedantic geometry into a math of logic and language, and always made perfect sense to me. But it's be proven to me over and over that I'm odd. Still, to have mental rigor, even in areas you hate, serves you for life.

I'm not torn at all. Problem solving is a huge life skill. I believe Algebra is the easiest way to develop talent in that area.

The other core subject I'd like to see every single student learn is rhetoric of argument and logic, both in English and Math. I can't tell you how many people I come across who can't distinguish a fact from an opinion or say they are being logical when they can't tie the reasoning together or fall back on social platitudes as rhetorical tricks.

It's one of my pet peeves.

Hooray to both Christina and Gregory for you comments. Thank you. I agree that better math teachers might have changed my path even more toward math. I do enjoy it and loved it as a kid.

What steps should be done to improve math classes? I wonder if the Khan Academy approach (aka Thayer Method, aka flip-classes) is a better way to handle math?

I think one of the major problems is that it's too easy to fall off the math bandwagon/track and get left behind and far too difficult to get caught back up. Falling off can sometimes be as stupid as not doing one homework assignment in high school algebra/calculus or not mastering multiplication tables fast enough in grade school.

One early failure at something and you are behind for life. Everyone gets stuck at some point for all sorts of good reasons. With math learning, it's monotonic all the way up, i.e. you can't learn more advanced concepts without learning the basic ones--both at a multi-year macro scale and lesson-by-lesson micro one. It easily sours people and once that happens, they become convinced it's something they're just not good at. There's even a whole social comfort structure for a soft landing.

IMHO, we need better help for picking people back up.

I think the most fascinating question is: who decides what is required for a high school diploma; who decides what is required for a college degree? What are their criteria? What are their aims? Also, is there an alternative? Which may lead us to an interesting question -- if math isn't necessary, or rather, if one cannot succeed at math does one even need a college degree?

The current math curriculum originated in a pre-computer world in which the dominant application was physics. It needs to be rethought for the information age to include more applied math, particularly probability and statistics.

If you graduate high school knowing how to perform an obscure closed form integral but don't really understand how to make sense of a set of data in a spreadsheet, I'm not sure you're as prepared as you could be for the real world.

Parts of this argument elude me. At times he seems to be saying that algebra is preventing graduation rates from being high.

That is a vanity metric.

We could easily raise graduation rates by making all classes profoundly simple. It tells us nothing about the quality of education receive of the readiness for the workforce.

It would perhaps make more sense to make schools accountable for their employment rate, not abstract tests without meaning. Are there better metrics out there?

I know schools use their % of our grads go on to graduate a 4 year college as the big stat

That psysociety link mentioned a great book:  The Calculus Diaries:, about facing a fear (and the assumed "I'm bad at math" feeling) and getting through it.

   We're really bad at teaching math in this country. I completely agree with the notion that we need to connect the math concepts with real life.  "Math" is, as much as it is anything, a language for describing relations and events.  Most people have some understanding of quantity relations in the world, they just don't know how to express them or represent them in "math" (where the power of symbolic manipulation makes complex things simple). If I'm talking to a kid, I usually tell them that if they can figure out how to budget lunch with the money in their pocket, they can do most of algebra.  They just have to learn the translation into math.

neat book. 

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