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Why Algebra?

In a syndicated Associated Press article written by Karen Matthews, she reports on a debate about the necessity of teaching algebra.

The question posed is this: “Who needs algebra?” Mathews references Professor Andrew Hacker of Queens College NY who in his book a failure to understand algebra as the main reason for high school dropout rates being so high. Hacker goes on to cite the fact that only 5% of all job categories require a knowledge of algebra, which I am sure is true. He also asks this rhetorical and fair question, “Will algebra help you understand the federal budget?” Yes it will. Let me explain.

Alan Solinger Ph.D. defines algebra as, “A method by which a person can use known facts, and then apply skills to discover an unknown.” The life for which we are preparing students requires precisely that skill. When a student graduates high school or college it will not be part of their job description to recite a multiplication table or write a clear sentence. It will be assumed they can do that. What is certain is that they will be asked to address subjective issues by deploying known facts, using critical thinking skills to uncover new information, and then synthesizing the two into a best-possible solution. They will also need to do that in choosing a house, a car, a spouse and just about anything else.

The more we are able to use facts, add new information and synthesize the two into a best case point-of-view or opinion, the better we will do in life, and the better we will be viewed by our employers. 

Algebra teaches us to do just that. No other subject does. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s 1983 report on education A Nation at Risk, dropping algebra is another “act of unilateral intellectual disarmament.”

Most of what we are teaching in our schools is based on facts and then we test on how well a student retains those facts. And that is indeed necessary. But the goal of education is to make meaning and I cannot think of any better preparation than finding the unknown.

I think the problem with algebra – and I am sure it is real – is that we simply command our students to study it because it is a requirement and they must therefore obey. Common sense should tell us that there as many reasons why a student buys-in to studying anything as there are students; not a single homogenizing principle.

What we should be doing is getting students to understand the need for these skills so that they are motivated to study. Ordering someone to do something simply because some faceless bureaucrat says they should is like –well living in Cuba.

If students convince themselves of the need to learn then the fire comes from within, not from having their feet held to the fire.

Alex TeregoAlex Terego  After 40 successful years in the hi-tech business, during which he participated in all phases of computing, beginning with IBM and culminating in selling his voice mail company, Alex became an early thought-leader in 21st Century skills development. He developed his Terego  Method™ when teaching Critical Thinking at the Thunderbird School of Global Management and the Eller Graduate School of Business at the University of Arizona.

The program is now available at no cost for schools. Click to see this video It is an investment of seven minutes of your time to discover how you can teach students to think for themselves and in teams. Follow me on Twitter @alex_terego

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