Thursday, November 1, 2012

Necessary Algebra

Paul ZornSaint Olaf College

I remember vividly the moment—and the room decor, the time of night, and the LP on the stereo—when my cousin Jon taught me algebra.

He and I, then seventh-graders, enjoyed those hoary old story problems (Al is twice as old as Betty; in seven years . . .) that once appeared in magazines such as Life and Look. I had concocted a simple strategy that one might charitably call iterative: Make any old integer guesses and tweak them as the errors suggest. What Jon first saw, and memorably pointed out, was that an unknown, say A, for Al’s age, can be manipulated as though it were a known quantity like one of my guesses.

What thrilled me then was the prospect of zipping through an entire genre of contrived puzzles. What amazes me still is the power of one simple idea: You can manipulate unknowns and knowns to solve equations.

That prescription seems a decent nine-word summary of what algebra does, even beyond the seventh grade. Jon and I got a preview, however dim, of an idea bigger and better than we could have suspected. Every student should encounter, and eventually own, an idea so simple and powerful. I’m convinced that almost every student has a fighting chance.

Is algebra necessary? 

So asked a provocative New York Times op-ed last July. In fact, the title is slightly misleading. Author Andrew Hacker, professor emeritus of political science at Queens College, doesn’t question algebra’s larger importance. He notes cheerfully that “mathematics, both pure and applied, is integral [Hacker’s good word] to our civilization, whether the realm is aesthetic or electronic.”

Hacker’s different but equally provocative question is how much “algebra,” that “onerous stumbling block for all kinds of students,” should be required in high school and college. His answer: Much less. And less of other mathematics, too.

Here “algebra” is in quotes because Hacker’s beef is not really with that subject in particular. Indeed, Hacker sees both “algebra” and existing curricula idiosyncratically. His examples of supposedly superfluous material—“vectorial angles” and “discontinuous functions”—are unlikely examples of “algebra” and even less representative of what is typically taught. And Hacker’s en passant endorsement of teaching long division (right up there with reading and writing) surprised me. He doesn’t acknowledge, or seem aware of, creative efforts to improve school teaching of “algebra” by teachers like those supported and mentored by, say, Math for America.

Hacker’s real curricular concern is broader than algebra: It’s the curricular complement of quantitative literacy (QL). He refers generally to “the toll mathematics takes” (my emphasis), not just to difficulties posed by algebra. In this sense Hacker’s three Rs proposal—require QR, but not “mathematics”—is more radical, and Philistine, than the article’s title suggests. But let’s concentrate on algebra.

Where he’s right, and wrong. 

Some of Hacker’s rhetorical targets are legitimate. Algebra can indeed be taught rigidly and applied ineffectively. (I remember the joy of solving algebra puzzles but also tedious hours of FOIL-ing quadratics.) Hustling high school students toward calculus sometimes pushes them too rapidly for effective mastery through prerequisite courses—including algebra. And Hacker, keen to avoid “dumbing down,” suggests some interesting applications of QL methods to such topics as the Affordable Care Act, cost/benefit analysis of environmental regulation, and climate change. (Whether such topics can really be approached without algebra is another question.)

As Hacker observes, few workers use algebra explicitly in daily life. (We all use it implicitly.) To infer that algebra can therefore vanish from required curricula is mistaken. Similar arguments might be made against history, the humanities, and the sciences generally, none of which is widely practiced in daily life. More important in curricular design than eventual daily use are broader intellectual values, which algebra clearly serves: learning to learn, detecting and exploiting structure, exposure to the best human ideas, and—the educational Holy Grail—transferability to novel contexts.

Transferability is undeniably difficult, as Hacker duly notes. The National Research Council agrees (see Education for Life and Work Report (pdf)) and indeed stresses the value of “deeper learning,” of which a key element is the detection of structure.

“Transfer is supported,” says the NRC, when learners master general principles that underlie techniques and operations.

Algebra is a poster child for deeper instruction. We should teach it. Students can learn it. 

Paul Zorn is a professor of mathematics at Saint Olaf College and currently serving as president of the Mathematical Association of America.

This article was published in the November 2012 issue of Math Horizons.