In his recent book, “The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions,” political scientist Andrew Hacker argues, among other things, that we should not require high school students to take algebra.
Part of his argument, based on data some have questioned, is that algebra courses are a big contributor to kids dropping out of high school. He also argues that algebra is nothing more than an “enigmatic orbit of abstractions” that most people will never use in their jobs.
There is no doubt this kind of argument resonates with people who had bad experiences in a math class, and for this reason Hacker’s book is getting lots of attention. On the other hand, there are many reasons why many in the mathematical community disagree with him.
Fundamentally, Hacker has a misunderstanding of what algebra is.
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The big idea that distinguishes algebra from the mathematics that preceded it is to think of operations taking place simultaneously on whole collections of numbers rather than on a single number.
In other words, algebra allowed us to go from solving a single arithmetic problem to solving many problems simultaneously without doing a lot more work.
Hacker believes that algebraic thinking will not be relevant to most students in their later lives. I could not disagree more.
The idea of performing operations on a collection of numbers at the same time is exactly what you are doing when you put a formula into a spreadsheet and then use the same formula on different cells.
You use algebraic thinking when you figure out how to adapt the recipe you use for a family of four to a dinner party of 12.
You use algebra to calculate how the results of the next ballgame will affect your favorite team’s winning percentage.
You use algebra when you decide whether it makes more sense to itemize the deductions on your income tax return or take the standard deduction.
Even people whose jobs never require them to write down an equation use algebraic thinking in their daily lives.
In Hacker’s defense, I don’t doubt some high school algebra teachers, maybe a majority, emphasize arcane definitions and complicated formulas instead of the problem-solving skills, copious applications and intrinsic beauty that should be at an algebra class’s core.
As with too much of education these days, the push toward standardized testing has led to an increased emphasis on memorization over conceptual understanding, and that is a shame.
But if math classes are not doing what we think they should, then we need to address those issues directly through better support and training for our teachers and better curricula, rather than holding them up as a straw man we can use to attack the idea of students taking mathematics at all.
Darren Glass is an associate mathematics professor at Gettysburg College. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.