Why Study Algebra?

Today I listened to NPR's Scott Simon and Keith Devlin of Stanford University, answer the question: Why Do We Need to Learn Algebra? (NPR Weekend Edition Saturday~February 28, 2009). Devlin described how spreadsheets have become essential to managing everything from your finances to your fantasy football team. And of course, spreadsheet are basically collections of algebraic formulas. You can follow this link to the NPR story, comments and audio file. Teachers might use Devlin's comments as a springboard for getting students to think and discuss the application of algebraic thinking in their lives. 




This is essential, since algebra is emerging as an academic gate keeper. I'm not a math teacher, but I suspect it stems in part from the fact that many students lack basic computation skills. But more importantly,  students have to be able to transition from concrete lower order thinking skills (arithmetic) to higher-level and more abstract thinking (algebra and beyond).  


As Doug Reeves has noted, "The single highest failure rate in high school is Algebra I. After pregnancy, it’s the leading indicator of high school dropout. The leading indicator of success in Algebra I is English 8. The Algebra 1 test is a reading test with numbers.”  District Administrator, April ‘05


If Reeves is correct, then this is as much a literacy problem as a math problem. Teachers of all content areas can pitch in to support the higher order skills (analysis, evaluation and creating) that will help students with more advance mathematical thinking. 

6 Replies to “Why Study Algebra?”

  1. We should be teaching algebra using spreadsheets. It would certainly fit with practice problems.
    “The Algebra 1 test is a reading test with numbers.”

    Doug Reeves is completely correct. But I would go much further. Because of the reading comprehension involved, all standardized exams such as the SAT and ACT are actually reading test first and content test secondarily.

    When you cannot read and comprehend the introductory paragraph, the multiple choice questions are impossible to answer correctly.

    I have often observed students answering choice C for every answer. Less often they simply do not shade any answer. Where is the analysis of these:
    1. Correlate English (or more precisely Reading Comprehension) to Science and Math portions. Low reading ability will always result in lower science and math scores.
    2. In the last ACT students started at 8:30 AM and worked without breaks until 12:00 noon. They started with English and ended with Science. Because they were mentally tired, I predict Science scores would greatly increase if given at the start.
    3. Correlate reading comprehension scores to “use of same answer choice for >10 consecutive items” and “no answer choice given” My prediction is that these factors will correlate closely.

  2. Brent,

    You make some excellent observations and I’d love to see some study / reflection on the three examples you raise.

    I think that a project-based approach would do much more to accurately gauge what students are learning. Additionally we could take advantage of the way that problem solving assists students in mastering bodies of knowledge.

    Thanks for your comment.


  3. I disagree that algebra I is reading with numbers. It is abstract thinking and applying old rules in new ways. That is the academic difficulty and how English 8 is related to Algebra I. Doug Reeves and yourself do not seem to understand the difference between correlation and causation. Success in algebra I and English 8 are correlated but there is not a causation relationship. Success (or lack of) in English 8 does not cause success (or lack of) in Algebra I.

    It is kind of like the success in algebra II and college success. Algebra II does not cause college success they are just correlated because the same skills, dispositions, etc that make one successful in algebra II make someone successful in college.

  4. Brian,

    Thanks for your comments – drawing the distinction between correlation and causation. And you are on target when you write that Algebra I “is abstract thinking and applying old rules in new ways.” That connects back to Bloom’s higher level thinking skills of analyzing, evaluating and creating. Kids need to be encouraged to explore solutions to math problem and share their thinking with their peers. I quote Reeve’s observation since it reminds us that we all need to pitch in to support critical thinking skills.

    BTW – I did a workshop at Brownsburg Community School Corporation in 2004.



  5. When I used to teach Algebra, I’d ask parents, community members, professionals, etc., “Do you use Algebra in your life & work?” And they (especially the professionals) would say, “Yes, nearly every day.”

    But then they’d look at me funny and add, “but not the Algebra I learned in school.”

    Seymour Papert likes to point out that we teach the Algebra that is easy to do with pencil & paper, not the Algebra that is useful or important (and yet, because Algebra is often a gate-keeper course, the pencil & paper Algebra becomes artificially important…)

    I believe strongly that math & Algebra are important to most of our students’ lives. But I think I would have liked teaching math more if I taught math content that was taught in the context of how hit is used in the real world, instead of math that is so decontextualized and taught without any significant connection to how it is used.

    It’s a shame we put students through that. And it is a shame that we’re surprised that so many people are math-phobes…

    Mike Muir
    Maine Center for Meaningful Engaged Learning

  6. Mike,

    I feel your pain. When I first started teaching history, I did it in the traditional manner I was taught – “What are 3 causes and 2 results of…?”

    It took me a few years to figure out my job was get the students to be the historian. I suspect the same perspective applies to other disciplines.

    To this day when I tell folks I was a high school history teacher, I often get “I hated history… nothin’ but wars and treaties.” Looks like we may have also killed off generations of historians!

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