Nobody Should Learn Algebra

Mar 28, 2008 by

Roger Schank (author of many books about education) has written an interesting piece called “Just the Facts, Ma’am” that actually cites no sources for his “facts” and attempts to lay out an argument for why nobody should learn algebra (“it matters not at all in real life” and “any college professor who is honest will tell you that algebra almost never comes up in any college course”).

Thought you might be interested in reading this little gem (found here), and my response:

I found it interesting that AFTER you criticize Dr. Faulkner for being a chemist and not a Cognitive Scientist, you claim a whole bunch of observations where you appear to have no expertise (I read your Bio).

“The fourth fact is that kids don’t like math much and it is clear why.” Actually there are lots of kids who do like math … and believe it or not, adults too. I’m curious what “facts” you’re basing this “opinion” on – was there some kind of survey that I missed reading?

“The fifth fact is that there is no evidence whosoever that says that a nation that is trailing in math test scores will somehow trail in GDP or whatever it is you really care about.” There is a big difference between “no evidence” and evidence to the contrary. There is also no evidence that removing reading from the elementary curriculum will have a negative impact on the ability to communicate verbally. Does that mean we should do it?

“The sixth fact is that there are lots of vested interests who need to keep teaching math. Let me name them – tutoring companies, testing companies, math teachers, book publishers, and many others who make lots of money when people are scared into thinking that their kid won’t get into college because he or she is bad at algebra II.” Oh … pardon me, those same companies don’t also offer to help with reading and vocabulary to help these poor students pass the idiotic vocabulary section of the SAT/ACT so that they can get into college too?

“The seventh fact is that nearly every grown adult has forgotten whatever algebra he or she ever learned to pass those silly tests, so it is clear that algebra is meaningless for adult life. I ask every important person in public life that I meet to tell me The Quadratic Formula. No one has ever been able to do so.” Please define “important person in public life” for me. I would venture to guess that none of them could tell you what the different parts of the brain or identify how they function either, so by this reasoning, cognitive science is now meaningless too.

“The eighth fact is that any college professor who is honest will tell you that algebra almost never comes up in any college course, and when it does come up it usually needn’t be there in the first place.” Wow! “almost never comes up in any college course” – that’s a hoot. Just out of curiosity, which college professors are you talking about exactly? As someone who has 5 (almost 6) degrees (including Chemistry, Biology, Business, Math, and Higher Education Leadership (abd)), I have seen algebra come up in courses from every one of those subjects. Also, physics, engineering, ecology, forest sciences, environmental sciences, social sciences, geography, meteorology, etc. When was the last time you took a college course? I don’t think you’ve actually done a thourogh survey of the field of “college professors” here.

Truth is, that students who learn how to think analytically for a math course, also learn skills like formulating a valid argument justified by facts (not opinions). Seems to me like someone has got something against mathematics. Bad experience maybe?

That said, I think that algebra, in particular, should not be required of students who are going into fields where it is not needed. There is a great book called “Heart of Mathematics” that gives an overview of all the beautiful mathematics in the world without requiring the rote practice of algebra. This is appropriate as an “overview” course for exposure to mathematics as a beautiful subject, without beating it to death with details.

However, the problem is that if a student waits to get to college to decide that they want to be a physicist, chemist, engineer, etc., they will have to begin at Algebra I and work their way up through Differential Equations BEFORE they can take some of their discipline-specific courses: Algebra I, Algebra II, Precalculus, Calculus I, Calculus II, Calculus III, Linear Algebra, Differential Equations. That’s eight semesters of mathematics BEFORE taking discipline-related courses. And therein lies the problem. If students DON’T take algebra in high school, there will be five-eight semesters standing between them and their discipline.

As a community college instructor, I see this play out over and over. Students finally decide that they want to be engineers or pharmacists (both disciplines require calculus), but they didn’t take algebra in high school because they didn’t think they would need it. Now they’re on a several year march to meet the PREREQUISITES of their discipline. They will be lucky if they can complete college in 6 years.

There are a lot of subjects that we expose students to without giving real-world context. I remember memorizing all the dates of all the battles of the Civil War for my 4th grade history class – I hated every second of it (see, I’m revealing MY bias). If you asked me today to name the dates of the battles of the Civil War, I couldn’t do it. Nor was the Civil War put into modern day context – what should we learn from this War? What do we see in the world today that parallels this war? Certainly a good history instructor would do this – relate the past to the present and future. But mine didn’t. That doesn’t mean that nobody should take history because I didn’t find it meaningful to me.


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  1. mathfaery

    Nicely said Maria!

  2. Robert

    None of the posted comments are visible and Schank’s website at the moment. Coincidence?

    What is the deal with so-called education experts these days wanting to throw out core elements of mathematics in order to make things more like “real life”? They remind me of parents who throw alcohol parties for their teenage kids in an effort to become “cool parents”.

    All I have to say to Schank is, if you think that algebra isn’t useful in the real world, it’s only because you don’t know enough algebra, and aren’t creative enough with what you do know. Don’t blame algebra for that!

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