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Do we really need to teach Algebra?

One of the most debatable topics these days is whether we should keep teaching high school math or not.

“Where will I use it in my life” is common feedback from the grouchy students. However, studies show that students don't mind practicing math, its testing math where we lose them.

And we lose them badly. In 2016 a Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) unveiled the results of an international math quiz that showed U.S. high school students lag behind their global peers in math, ranking 40th in math out of 72 countries last year. The U.S. score was down 17 points from 2009 and 20 points below the average of others taking the quiz, which saw Singapore come out on top, followed by Japan, Estonia, Finland, and Canada.

As a result of this failure, many in and out of the school system advocate to “lower the bar”, drop Pre-Calc, Algebra II or even Algebra I from the curriculum (and standardized testing) and help students overcome the “math anxiety” by bypassing the subject altogether.

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"Math anxiety" may sound silly, but it's a really common phobia that starts around middle school. When math becomes abstract, when we start talking about functions and variables, and the exercises move away from real-world problems into y=3x2+14 which doesn’t mean a thing.

The problem is human nature.  When a person doesn't like a subject, he tends to avoid it, so when he doesn't like math he tends to study less (or not at all).  And so he falls more and more behind.  That makes him more afraid and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Many educators and parents tell kids the well-known lie: “you need to study quadratic equations/sine/cosine/other high-math subject because it is important to your future”, “you will use it all the time when you grow up”, “you will understand when you go to college” and so on and so on. But the hard truth is that we don’t really need, or use it, as revealed by a study conducted by Michael Handel, a researcher at Northeastern University in Massachusetts - less than 5% of jobs use calculus and algebra.  

After all, there are very few engineers working on inventing all the tech-marvel we use on a daily basis. Most of us are just consumers of everything they invent. We don’t really need to understand how streaming videos from YouTube works, how 4G network works, and how to place a communication satellite in a geostationary position. We can live a perfectly happy and healthy life, and enjoy the advancements, without this material understanding.

However, math (when taught right) is a great tool to model the world around us. Math is a tool to develop problem-solving skills and logical/critical thinking.

And that’s the key to succeed in life. Being able to understand the scheme of things. What comes before what, how to deduce information from the data presented, how to conclude, reason and support your decision and understanding, based on the evidence you see. (and how to adjust your point-of-view if the reality doesn’t support your gut-feeling.)

The truth is the world around us is complicated, and is getting more and more complex with every minute passed. In today’s reality of “alternative facts”, which tools we can provide our students that can help them navigate in this ocean of constant nonsense mumble around us?

Math, end especially algebra can be one of these tools. We can use it to reach conclusions such as “if a piece of information is unknown, (a variable in an equation) how can we find it, what do we need to do in order to fill the gaps in our knowledge?” and then – “what if we miss more than one piece of information (two variables equations). How do we model the emotional roller-coaster the media is pushing into our living rooms all the time? How can we rationalize the constant flow of bad-news? Is it really worse that before (statistics and data gathering) Do we even understand the period of that cycle? (sine/cosine) and do we have real tools to deal with the pseudo-science marketers are throwing at us all the time? (understanding sample size and randomness importance in surveys)

You see, math is a tool to model the world around us, it should not be taught just for the sake of math, or just to pass the test. We are giving our students a super-valuable and powerful tool for life: the ability to critically think about our environment, and to make informed decisions.

When taught like that, there’s no reason students will lag behind. All we need to do is to teach it is as a mean to an end. Not for sake of math itself.

So if you ask me – I would say “hell yes!” Bring on the math books!

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  • Jul 6, 2017 2:26:03 PM
   

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