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Algebra can be easy

Robert Niles
By Robert Niles
Published: July 14, 2008 at 4:26 PM (MST)
My daughter, Natalie, and I were talking about math yesterday. The State of California is going to start requiring eighth graders to take algebra, and Natalie was worried. She's starting sixth grade in the fall.

"I'm never going to get algebra," she said.

"Nonsense," I replied. "You already know it."


"Let's try this: Let's say you've got some amount of money -- we'll call that 'A.' And then you add it to another amount of money, which we will call 'B.'"

She arched an eyebrow, but said nothing.

"So we add A and B together and get a new, larger amount of money, which we will call 'C.'"

"Okay," she said.

"So A plus B equals C."

"Right," she said, slowly.

"Let's say we start again, with that amount C and subtract the amount B. What do we have left?" I asked her.

"A?" she said.

"Congratulations," I said. "You know algebra."

"What?!" she said, with the expression of a kid who feels like she's just been ripped off at the candy counter.

"Really," I said. "Algebra is just math, without the numbers. Arithmetic is math with numbers. That's what you've been doing in school so far.

"With algebra," I continued, "you'll use letters to express unknown amounts of stuff. Then you'll use the what you do know about those amounts, from statements like A+B=C, to figure out more information about those amounts.

"Let's take another example: Two times A equals 10. What do you know about A?"

She gave me a look like I was a crazy homeless man who'd just asked her for a thousand dollars.

"Let's try it another way. If you double amount A, you get 10, okay?"

"Okay," she said, wondering how quickly she can get out of this conversation with her clearly crazy dad.

"So how much is A?"

"Five," she said.

"Right!," I said. "Algebra also gets you thinking in reverse; you start with an answer and work backward to find out something about the question."

It's shame that so many people, in schools and society, uses their failure at math to promote the idea that math is just too hard. The problem with math education in this country is that we swamp our students with too many concepts at once. We introduce new concepts, such as algebra, before students have mastered old ones, frustrating students and turning them off math entirely. No student should be asked to try any algebra problem, even ones as simple as the ones I just described, until they memorized their addition and multiplication tables.

Algebra can be easy. It's just logic - in its purest form. Nothing could be simpler. It's bad teaching, coupled with bad curriculum resulting from bad politics, that makes it hard.

Robert Niles also can be found at

From Rich Cameron on July 16, 2008 at 1:34 PM

Loved this and shared with my 15-year-old daughter who is repeating her algebra class in summer school. "Okay," she said, "but there is still no reason for me to have to know parabolas!" Quadratic formulas she can see.

From Robert Niles on July 16, 2008 at 4:42 PM

Parabolas are easy, too.

Just grab a baseball and go play catch. :-)

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