N Ways to Apply Algebra with the New York Times — Comments

Published by MrHonner on

I was very happy with how well my piece “N Ways to Apply Algebra with the New York Times” has been received.  Written for the New York Times Learning Network, this article was a response to this summer’s editorial “Is Algebra Necessary?”.  My intention was to create opportunities for teachers and students to see and use algebra in the context of New York Times content and resources.

The piece generated a lot of comments, some of which I found quite surprising.  For example,

This piece does an excellent job of demonstrating Mr. Hacker’s point – that algebra is unnecessary for most of daily life and work. Each of the above exercises is merely a more tedious and academic way of finding information that is readily available via the web or a simple calculator  (link)

Naturally I disagree that the exercises are “tedious” and “academic”, but what really surprises me is the claim that if some piece of information is readily available via the web or calculator, then there’s no reason to teach it.

The commenter specifically refers to an activity which explores how various formulas govern housing prices, interest rates, and mortgage payments.  While it is true that technologies exist that can calculate mortgage payments for us, students need more than just awareness of the existence of these formulas.  House payments, car payments–debt payments in general–play a significant role in modern life.  Students should explore the mathematics of these situations and develop experience, intuition, and understanding about the implications of that mathematics.

The above commenter agreed with an earlier comment:

These examples are pretty awful. No one would ever calculate mortgage payments using the actual formula. No one.   (link)

Even if you believe no one would use the actual formula, how do calculators and computer programs find the answers for us?  By using the actual formula.

I don’t like the suggestion here that it’s ok to tell students something like “It’s not important for you to know how mortgage payments are calculated; it’s good enough for you to know that someone else can do it for you.”  This is wrong, both as a teaching matter (our goal should be to empower students) and as practical matter (are banks and mortgage lenders always trustworthy?).

Lastly, I found this comment both shocking and saddening:

I’m getting a PhD in Math Education. … I think the article pretty much proves that Algebra is not necessary. I am still, after many years, hoping to talk to someone other than an engineer who can give me an example of using Algebra in the workplace. As for using it in real life, I have never heard of it happening and I do not see it happening here.  (link)

Someone earning a PhD in Math Education has no idea how anyone other than engineers use algebra in their jobs.  And they proudly state that they have never heard of algebra being used in “real life”.

This is a purported expert in mathematics education, someone who, presumably, will be teaching and training future math teachers.  And what will this person tell those future math teachers?  That algebra isn’t necessary.

Categories: NYTTeaching


Amy · October 10, 2012 at 9:45 pm

I would also like to note that even in fields where one uses a calculator or computer to use “the actual formula,” most companies who require at least some quality control mandate that these values be, in fact, checked by hand. Sometimes double checked.

    MrHonner · October 11, 2012 at 8:56 pm

    Thanks for the professional perspective, Amy. It makes sense that such calculations would be checked and double-checked by hand. A lot could be riding on the accuracy!

Ravi · October 12, 2012 at 5:30 pm

I’m in the UK but algebra transcends national borders!

I used to be an engineer so I used algebra a lot. But now I am a trade union regional secretary (UK trade union regional secretary = US regional organizing director (note the proper use of = sign and parenthesis denoting my maths training)).

Anyway as a trade union official I use algebra in many ways. An example is to assess how we are doing in recruiting new members to the union. An example is below – though note the figures are made up for illustrative purposes only

My region had 130,000 members last year and in the 8 months to the end of July had 8,800 new members join. Last year we lost 13.5% of our members.

If our leavers’ rate for 2012 increases to 14% (due to the misguided austerity measures and public sector cuts of our incompetent government – but that’s another story) how many new members do we need to recruit in the period October – December to ensure our membership stays the same as it was at the start of the year?

You need algebra to solve this problem. If you are smart enough to do this in your head without writing it down – well done. But all you have done is to do algebra in your head.

Algebra is a set of tools for manipulating known and unknown numbers and it used everyday, in all walks of life.

To me it is somewhat akin to learning your scales when you learn a musical instrument. As a musician you may not ever play the scales in a performance but you sure as hell know that without knowing and practising them you’d be far less accomplished.

    MrHonner · October 12, 2012 at 8:24 pm

    Thanks for sharing another real-world application of mathematics, Ravi. I’m sure not all directors use mathematical modeling to perform their duties, but naturally, as a former engineer, you recognize the power and utility of such tools.

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