I've been thinking about a response to the article published in the New York Times, "Is Algebra Necessary?" for over a year. I've started maybe 10 different draft posts and scrapped them. I've been following the follow-up debates in blogs (see Wiggins' post on algebra 1 as a poorly designed course and Honner's response to Wiggins) and thinking about related articles like "Wrong Answer: The Case Against Algebra II" and "The Mathematician's Lament".
I've been so torn about how to respond because as a math teacher, of course I believe teaching math is vital. I became a teacher because I wanted to save the world and martyr myself with 80 hour work weeks and panicked sweats every Sunday night. And reading these articles seems to trivialize what I have poured sweat, tears and many many gallons of coffee into. Yet I see their side of things. I hate the idea of algebra 1 being the barrier between a talented artist and a career in art. I am now teaching students in algebra 1 who have failed it two or three times before and it broke my heart yesterday when I handed back a homework assignment I had given a 7/10 to a student and her face lit up as she said that she'd never gotten a passing score on a math assignment.
Also, I've never used math in "the real world". I'm not an engineer, an economist, a physicist or a banker. I don't know how math gets used out there so who am I to tell students year after year that they're going to need these skills when I don't know that they will. The argument that math sharpens general cognitive skills and teaches students problem solving strategies that will be useful later in life, especially as it's backed up by research, holds water but that doesn't help us algebra teachers argue for teaching algebra. Why not teach statistics? Or a formal logic class? Should we defend the traditional math sequence, or should we branch out and give students who are failing at algebra alternative math options?
But the other day I was talking with my husband and I realized why I love math, not why I teach it or how I use it, but why I love it. And I think the reason for my love is also the reason it needs to be taught. I am decidedly introverted, perhaps the queen of introverts. I can't handle phones- it's very very difficult for me to talk on the phone with those I love and even harder with those I don't know. I need to see eyes, to gauge reactions, to be able to comment on surroundings or engage my conversation partner in a task that removes the focus of conversation off of me. I've found the adult world intimidating and overwhelming and need frequent breaks from it. I like playing board games to escape because they have defined protocols. I know exactly what the object of the game is and how to get there. I can enjoy socializing while playing because of the game's comforting structure.
The world is overwhelming for anyone- even those not so introverted as I am. There are complex political systems to understand, the natural world can be scary and confusing, bad things happen to good people inexplicably, we are born with deficiencies and insecurities that make socializing difficult or awkward. School is for this- to help our young students learn that knowledge will conquer their confusions and difficulties. When they understand how something works, they aren't as afraid of it and they know how to navigate it. Or when they understand how something works, they won't make a mess of it because of overconfidence or arrogance. Understanding our history and political systems is vital but impossible. We give our students the best analysis tools we can and hope that time and a love of learning will help guide them in making wise decisions for themselves. Learning science is fascinating and practical, but requires lots of field trips, labs, props and math to even begin understanding the basics of how our world works. Math is the only field where understanding can be created by the student with nothing more than a pencil, a paper and a system of logical rules- just like a board game. Yet unlike a board game, math helps us untangle the mysteries of how the world around us works. It gives us a sense of order and control over our own minds and our own environments. Isn't our job as educators to help students make sense of the world around them and to help them feel in control of their own lives? Math is instrumental in accomplishing these two goals but especially for helping students realize what their minds are capable of and that they don't have to go outside to conquer a small piece of their universe.
So this is why we need algebra and not just statistics or logic. Algebra is about finding the unknowns. It's about looking at how the complex variables in our lives that affect each other and us. It has the further advantage of being the bedrock of higher level math so that if a student chose to pursue advanced math, she could. It's got an easily understood framework of logic so that when the basic properties of algebra are mastered, all the other results are easily provable by a 14 year old with a pencil. But most importantly, mastering algebra - especially because it can be such a difficult transition for many students- makes a student feel powerful and in control of her mind and world. Isn't this how we want students to feel when they go out to help shape our society?