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how do we use algebra in the real life

how do we use algebra in real life? to me its just a waste of time. teach us how to pay our bills, write a check, buy a home, manage our money. im tiered of trying to find your X algebra and i dont know Y either!!!!

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All these metaphors are wonderful. 
With that being said, here's the missing factor to your equation. I'm 40 years old. Most of the people I've talked with about this subject say the same thing. They never understood what the point was if you rarely use this in a literal sense. 
I propose a compromise. Why not get them to algebra II then switch gears and actually give them some real life 'algebra' situations. Put their minds to the test, but make the tests geared towards every day things most people don't learn enough about before getting out of school. Like how to get a mortgage, build good credit, change a dead car battery or a flat tire, save money using algebra in a grocery store... It's the same old draconian dribble with an added bonus of PACKETS and oh yeah 40 year olds know what I mean when I say lattice. How do we help our children do their homework when the process to complete the mathematical equation is completely different on paper now. The answer is the same but the kids get told it's wrong if it's not done the new way? Pythagoras would be disappointed.
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5 Answers

These are all great answers, but I'd like to point out something a bit more conceptual.  The skills learned in algebra are based on the idea that you can manipulate an equation by doing the same thing to both sides to create another equation that's the same value, but written differently.  When I teach algebra, I talk about the idea that solving equations is all about rewriting the same thing differently, turning it around in your head and on paper until you get it into a form that tells you what you want to know.  
 
In that sense, you use algebra all the time in real life.  It might not happen to involve numbers, but the skills are still there.  Say you get home from school one day and you can't find your key.  How would you get into your house?  You'd probably do some version of turning the problem around, maybe check the windows to see if you could get in that way, maybe retrace your steps to see if you dropped your keys somewhere.  Eventually, something would work out, and you'd figure out a way to get into your house.  Or, say you're having trouble figuring out why your significant other is mad at you.  You'd again be turning the problem around in your head, working one step at a time and going over what you know, until you find the angle that makes the reason for his/her anger clear.  
 
That is what I've found far more energizing than any single math application - algebra teaches you how to problem solve, and generally far more thoroughly than any other school subject.  I know it can be frustrating when you feel like you have no idea what they're asking you for, but I promise you, the skills you are learning will become useful in just getting through your life.  Just think about it without the numbers, and ask yourself - what exactly am I really doing here?  How would I solve a real-life problem like this?

Comments

I know this post is over a year old, but I feel compelled to reply, to Give praise. your explanation, Ms. Ellen S. From Pittsburg,PA Is the most eloquent, articulative, illuminating definition that I have ever heard and I have friends who are Math professors and hold PHD's in Mathematic's. Your ability to simplify and refine the purpose of algebra was ingenious. i think if more kids had teachers like you, then kids would be able to conceptualize Alegbra in a whole new way, and probably be more motivated and invested into tackling it.!
Thank you so much for the kind words!  I really appreciate comments like yours; it's so easy to fall into a routine in your teaching and not really know whether your ideas are hitting home or not.  I'm glad they resonate with you!
 
This question actually prompted me to write a whole blog post about a situation in my own life where I used my algebra skills to problem solve; you can find it over on my WyzAnt Blog page: http://www.wyzant.com/resources/blogs/241993/a_few_thoughts_on_why_we_learn_algebra

Most teachers will probably tell you that algebra can be helpful in the real world when you're shopping, doing your taxes, or balancing your checkbook.  Although the skills you learn in algebra can be helpful in those situations, I would like to give you a slightly different answer.  When I was in school, I had to run a mile every week in PE, and I hated it.  I have not run a mile since I was in high school, but I recognize that running a mile every week back then helped me to be a healthier person, and to stay in shape for my everyday life.  After high school, you may never use algebra again, but you are learning it now to develop parts of your brain that would otherwise get weak.  Algebra teaches you more than how to do a math problem; it teaches you how to think logically and organize information, and that is something you will need to do in your everyday life, whether you think of it as algebra or not.  Also, you may hate algebra now, but you may realize down the line that the career you want requires you to have some math knowledge, and if you don't learn it now, you will limit your career choices in the future.  For example, my husband designs video games for a living, and he has to have some knowledge of CALCULUS for his job.  You never know what skills you will need in the future, and your time in junior high and high school is supposed to prepare you to have basic knowledge in ALL subjects so that you don't find yourself stuck down the line!

Algebra is a language for representing and talking about calculations.
 
Despite what your teachers might have told you a million times, it isn't *necessary* for everyday life...but neither is art, music, dance, sports, games, history, fiction, or a million other things people do, so that isn't really the right standard, is it?
 
The most important reason to share in the power and joy of the oldest and most useful literary tradition is so that you don't get constantly ripped off, possibly by accident because they don't know it either, but more often by politicians, advertisers, loan officers, or any other charlatan who seeks to gain by dazzling you with complicated numbers.  Even grocery stores, selling 5 items for $3, are taking advantage of a difficult fraction to make the price harder to judge.  And fractions were invented 8,000 years ago, so it's not like you should wait for the upgrade first.
 
Fortunately, the essential skill - head math - is something many people learn for practical reasons anyway.  What we usually think of as algebra is the written symbolic language for describing the breaking and recombining of numbers, but the breaking and recombining is the most useful part that everyone should learn for everyday life.
 
However, developing either helps the other.  And algebra can also be done verbally, too!
 
The ability to untie or reverse a complicated calculation is surprisingly quite common - almost everyone can do algebra in that sense, but many don't know that they're doing it.
 
Algebra's best feature is that it allows us to talk about and then see the invisible. 
 
When we can make judgements about a number even though we don't actually know it's size, we are performing the primary trick that has made people confuse mathematicians with magicians for thousands of years.  Most people learn the essential imaginative leap as infants, and so can experience great difficulty as adults recognizing that it's not just a _choice_, but that there are also _options_.
 
Learning algebra means learning those options.

Comments

THANK YOU TOM M. !!!!!!!!!  This is by far and away, the best answer to the question of "what is algebra." I have been asking this question since I was in 7th grade. I am now a retired school teacher. You have put my mind at ease. Thank you so very much be giving this question the time and thought it took to creatively put this out for the masses to read!

Most of us use algebra every day - simple problems that we "do in our heads".  For instance, say you have $20 and you go to the store.  The store is having a "buy one and get one at half price" sale.  How do you figure out what you can buy?  There's an equation for that.  Or, "how tall is that building?"  If you know how far away it is, and the height of any one thing you have at hand, there's an equation for that. 

     I asked myself the same question in high school. In real life, the following careers demand that you use algebra and math concepts that are like algebra in order to succeed. For example, in the manufacturing world of business, most business administrators will use algebraic concepts in order to explain complex issues going in the work place. I have taken said class in college and can verify that math, including algebra, is important to learn and understand.
     The second career is in computer science. The more math you know in this field, the better success you will have. Many programs require that you use complex equations and functions in order for the computer to understand your list of commands. Algebra is the preliminary step to trigonometry which are both prerequisites for precalculus and calculus.
     The above said are just two examples of careers that require math knowledge from many disciplines. If you choose either, you must know your math including algebra.