Anecdotes about Algebra

If ever a single academic subject has been under attack, it is algebra. Students repeatedly ask me, "Why is this important?" or "When am I ever going to use this?" and even the dreaded "Why should I care?" Recently parents are echoing the thoughts and in several states alternatives to algebra under the umbrella term "trade math" are being added to curriculum so that students can opt out of upper level maths.
On one hand, I cannot blame my student's frustration and reluctance to give Algebra the time it deserves. I remember when I was a student initially introduced to Algebra. There is a basic, primal fear against seeing numbers and letters in the same equation that is difficult to overcome and accept. I struggled with algebra, detested it even, but luckily I had many great teachers who helped me all the way into Calculus. Returning to Algebra as an adult I have found several methods which have helped me communicate the importance of the most crucial subject you may never use:
Firstly, as an adult whose grade does not depend on Algebra, you begin to see that it is essentially a puzzle. Like all puzzles Algebra is based on one fundamental concept, the movement of unknown variables. The word "unknown" is as intimidating and terrifying in math as it is elsewhere, perhaps even more so. However, it is important to explain that Algebra follows a set of rules, and while there are many rules and many students are inherently against memorization, explain that the only way to remember all these rules is to practice. I try to explain that anyone can do Algebra, and that all upper-level math is based on it.

However, this still does not explain why it is important. Algebra is encountered in most, if not all career paths at a certain level. I've explained to students that police use algebra for forensics, that doctors and nurses are expected to know it to determine appropriate amounts of dosage for each patient and that many will use it unknowingly on their taxes. While each of these is true, it has been as useful as this simple explanation of why it is important to know and master Algebra:
People do not want cheap labor that can do Algebra. There are people out there who fully expect for students not to succeed in their studies, and they are waiting on the wings to keep them in permanent poverty once they graduate from high school. Algebra is about learning difficult concepts and mastering upper-level thinking, something that everyone must do in order to advance beyond the "grunt-level" work force. Algebra, I believe, is another tool to defend yourself against ignorance, the most exploitable trait a human being can have. We learn Algebra, I explain, in order to learn not to give up. I tell students that if they are willing to give up at Algebra, they should learn to remain comfortable in defeat.

I have never had a student fail Algebra after this particular lecture.


Andrew I.

Andrew: Spanish, Algebra, AP History and English Tutor

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