Wednesday, December 10, 2008

“Why study algebra?”

Rachel in the library sent tipped me off on this gem from the In the Library with the Lead Pipe blog. The below is excerpted from a post reviewing the book Made to Stick. Apparently in one of the chapters of the book the author considers answers to the question: “Why study algebra?” The discussion is there to futher some larger point, but he's come up with a well-phrased answer. Here's the post excerpt:

This chapter also has an excellent idea clinic on the need for algebra. It begins with the question “Why study algebra?” and a typical conference answer suffering from the Curse of Knowledge which includes gems like “Algebra provides procedures for manipulating symbols to allow for understanding the world around us.” The following slightly better example has things like, you need it to get your diploma, it will help you with reasoning skills, etc. But then the winner:
“This is a response from a high school algebra teacher, Dean Sherman, to an Internet discussion of this topic among high school teachers:
My grade 9 students have difficulty appreciating the usefulness of the Standard Form of the equation of a line, prompting them to ask, “When are we ever going to need this?”

This question used to really bother me, and I would look, as a result, for justification for everything I taught. Now I say, “Never. You will never use this.”

I then go on to remind them that people don’t lift weights so that they will be prepared should, one day, [someone] knock them over on the street and lay a barbell across their chests. You lift weights so that you can knock over a defensive lineman, or carry your groceries or lift your grandchildren without being sore the next day. You do math exercises so that you can improve your ability to think logically, so that you can be a better lawyer, doctor, architect, prison warden or parent.

MATH IS MENTAL WEIGHT TRAINING. It is a means to an end (for most people), and not an end in itself.”

Thanks, Rachel!

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