Algebra is the wrong direction for math instruction

Feb 06, 14 Algebra is the wrong direction for math instruction

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1 Comment

  1. Patrick, you hit a few chords in this post, and I’m glad that you are taking a stand. It’s not a wishy-washy position which means that there are some that will agree, and some that will disagree.

    At the risk of sounding ambivalent myself, I will say that there are a couple of your points that resonate. The most obvious is the desire to have teachers who have the appropriate level of expertise in the subjects that they teach. That’s just makes sense. I fear that too many teachers (and parents) implicitly and explicitly communicate their own negative experience of mathematics education to their students. With most elementary math programs being taught by generalist teachers, the chances of a student running into a few along the way that have a resistance to, if not a fear of, math coursing through their veins is pretty good.

    But that’s not really what you’re talking about here, is it?

    If I read you correctly, you are arguing for and against the study of certain branches of mathematics from a place of utility. For me, this is a perspective that ignores the aesthetic qualities of mathematics and the sheer joy of discovering and exploring math as a way to “play with the world” in a very unique way.

    Some of the first mathematical puzzles that my sons and I solved were, it could be argued, grounded in elementary algebra: “I’m thinking of a number and when I add 3 to that number, the answer is 12″. Not only were games like this helpful for me in discovering how they thought, but they also helped to strengthen their ability to think about relationships and patterns in a very unique manner.

    As a student, some of my first math worksheets were algebraic in nature: “Box” + 2 = 3

    I’m not sure, but I think grounding students in early algebraic thinking allows them to think about numbers in a different way.

    On a completely different track, I was talking (via email) with a colleague who is very passionate about mathematics and we were discussing your blog piece. He made the excellent point (well…I thought it was excellent) that the argument from utility would put many things in danger of elimination. Should students not learn about musical structure. Is the fact that most students will never write a symphony a good enough reason to remove a study of symphonic form from our Arts curriculum? What might happen to our curriculum if we applied the same line of thinking to the study of dance, drama or visual arts? What would disappear if we admitted that, once they leave school, most people would never read or write a piece of poetry?

    I think that we need to teach things that are useful, but I fear that if the judge of a discipline’s value is the degree to which we explicitly apply it once our schooling is over, we stand to miss out on a huge piece of what it means to be an educated person. A system of curriculum based primarily on utility widens the gap, I believe, between what it means to be schooled, and what it means to be educated.

    I look forward to some lively conversation on your post. I wanted to jump in with some “points of resistance” in order to fuel the fire a little more!

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