Algebra: The Root of All Evil?

dear algebra

As the deadline for my current Kickstarter campaign draws near, math is on my mind.  We’ve got until noon on Tuesday to raise another $650.  Math has also been on my mind as the school year has started up in my work as a teacher.

Two weeks ago, I attended a workshop for teachers who are participating in a study TERC, a research and curriculum developer in my hometown of Cambridge MA, is conducting this year on introducing children to ideas about algebra earlier in their educational lives than ever before.

hw algebra

During the Powerpoint Party Proceedings, we came around to the topic of variables.  These are quantities of a given object that can change in different situations.  They are typically represented with numbers in algebraic thinking, such as N, or in the spectacularly resplendent universe of Coldplay, X and Y.

The presenter stressed the importance of teaching students to focus on the quantity of variables, rather than the objects themselves.  The object isn’t what’s varying, it’s the quantity.  Ergo, teach them to forget about the object so they’ll be sure and understand what they’re really measuring.

Mathematically sound advice, perhaps, but it struck me that this pedagogy lies at the heart of the kinds of problems we’ve seen in industries like banking and health care in recent years.  Computers have facilitated the widespread use of increasingly complex mathematical operations in the FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) sectors of contemporary economies.  Engineering students go into Wall Street to use their mathematical expertise rather than into industries that, y’know, make stuff that helps keep people employed.

When abstracted into the universe of math, where the quantity jumps out on the page, the objects being counted can be more easily forgotten.  When objects like medical procedures and mortgages are the objects in question, the consequences of this can be disastrous.  The quantity of cash saved by denying coverage to a patient or refusing to renegotiate a corrupt mortgage is easier to measure with algebra and other algorithms than the the real-life suffering that comes as a result of those decisions.

Education reformers like to talk about preparing students for the 21st century. Typically this seems to suggest preparing them to succeed within the structure of contemporary society, rather than on preparing them to change it for the better.

Perhaps we should represent variables with icons that remind us of exactly what – or who – it is we are continually counting as times change.  I doubt kids would like algebra that much more than they do now, but maybe they’d put it to better use when they’re older.

Schoolboy Struggling with Math Problems

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