Saturday, August 4, 2012

How Important is Algebra?

Education flows on a cycle, like everything associated with a world organized by the moon.

This week, algebra has washed back on shore, with articles asking if algebra is really necessary and positing that failing algebra in high school isn't the end of the world.

The short answers are no, and it's not.

The long answer is, I believe a bit more complicated.

First, some background. I failed Algebra II, spectacularly. I am not sure how I passed the basic math class I took in college. I have been, since about 6th grade, nearly phobic about upper-level math. I had horrible teachers who consistently failed to answer why math is organized the way it is and who were incapable of applying any of it to the real world. When I was confused and asked for an explanation, the teachers simply switched the numbers and did the exact same problem again. Zero help.

So now I am responsible for educating kids, including upper level math students. How on earth does this work, you wonder? Generally, HoneyFern uses Aleks, an artificially intelligent online program with math through college, Life of Fred (a series of math for readers, usually as a supplement), and, in extreme cases, I turn to Derek Owens who teaches locally at LEAD in Decatur, Georgia, and online for everyone else. I have also been watching some of Vi Hart's videos in an effort to understand; the one below on snakes (not really, but that's the entry) is an excellent representative sample of her work:

More importantly, we use math every day in what we do. I work hard to apply what we learn on paper to what we do every day. Filling in the gaps in a budget requires algebra, and calculating sales tax and square footage requires understanding of basic mathematical functions and formulas. I work hard to figure out why something is important to learn.

I have been teaching myself more upper-level math as we go, and to me it is like a puzzle to be solved, just for the sake of solving it. I am honest with the kids, though; although the perseverance and logic upper-level math teaches them is priceless, it is not going to make-or-break them in life (unless they want to be a physicist or an astronaut or rocket scientist). My goal is to make it harmless and not intimidating, and hopefully they will reach for the more challenging courses as they move through HoneyFern.

Side note: Interesting blog Friday in Education Week; turns out, algebra-for-all actually hurt high- achieving students.

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