Debate over the utility of high school math courses often accompanies the beckoning school year. I revisit Andrew Hacker's New York Times column “Is Algebra Necessary?” from last summer and provide the obvious, unpopular, answer: Yes.
Will students ever need to graph a linear function or find points of discontinuity in their later professional lives? No. Most students' use of high school algorithms ends with formal education.
So why learn it? Because, when taught with the goal of creating powerful habits of mind, mathematics empowers students to flex their creative and analytic problem-solving skills in ways that no other discipline does. Yes, the classroom experience can be mind-numbing. If regurgitating an algorithm is all that's required, a student will, and should, glaze over in bored frustration.
I used to be a stultifying teacher, devoted to the lecture and concerned primarily with content coverage. Thankfully, experience and strong mentors revealed a truth obvious to master educators: Students are capable of far more than copying and pasting. Dialogue, debate and challenge of generalization fill my current classroom. I have higher hopes for my students than the ability to merely duplicate a task. I want them to actively engage, demand proof and justify cogently. Are these skills necessary for the welfare of future generations? Yes.
The next time you engage in the algebra debate, ask yourself, “Is your aversion to algebra or to the classroom?” If the latter, the focus should be on the quality of instruction. Don't throw out algebra with an inexperienced teacher.
The writer teaches mathematics at The Ellis School's Upper School.
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