In the News: The Structure and Purpose of Algebra Instruction

Have you recently found something interesting ‘in the news’? If so – let us know at Here’s something we found that seems to be creating a ‘buzz’ in the adult education community:

Aaron Kohring and Donna Curry, EFF math content experts, note that the recent New York Times op-ed piece by Andrew Hacker “Is Algebra Necessary?” sparked a *lively* discussion over on the LINCS numeracy discussion list – they recommend that you hop over and take a look at it.

In particular, these quotes from the discussion stood out:

“Teaching math without algebra is like teaching science without the scientific method. [i.e.] ‘This is the way it is. Memorize it. No, I can’t explain how I know. This is what’s in the book, so it’s right.’ It might get you through the test, but it’s a long way from helping you understand how to use these powerful tools for your own purposes.”
Rachel Baron GED/ABE Instructor

I haven’t always been the mathlete that I am today, but math taught me to never give up, to try different approaches, to think differently about the problem I was working, and jubilation of finding a solution. Math has not depleted my brainpower but has given me more tools in which I am able to think more efficiently and effectively.” 
Brooke Istas, Moderator, LINCS Math and Numeracy List

“The study of algebra promotes forethought and planning, devising a systematic and logical process to derive a solution. Does this not apply in all aspects of life? I tell students that “algebra” is a planning system. When problems become more complex and require the execution of multiple steps in the correct order, we think it through and create the “plan” of execution which is the algebra equation. It is like a recipe.” 
Maureen Carro, Academic Learning Solutions

Now some might say that subscribers to a Math and Numeracy discussion list might be biased in favor of Algebra. Here’s a post Duren found on the blogosphere from a young bibliophile and professed ‘math hater’  — also in rebuttal of the NYT article: The Fear of Math.

In the EFF online mini-course Algebrafying Arithmetic: Developing algebraic reasoning with ALL learners Donna Curry addresses this issue of ‘algebra fear’ and the need to re-think algebra instruction:

“Rather than refer to ‘algebra’, we might want to talk about ‘algebraic thinking’ or ‘algebraic reasoning’ so that we understand that it is more than just about manipulating symbols. When we understand what algebraic thinking includes, we can more readily recognize how it is used in life. Algebraic thinking involves recognizing and analyzing patterns, studying and representing relationships, making generalizations, and analyzing how things change. It is about making predictions based on patterns or relationships, making decisions, and solving real problems. It is about creating models based on phenomena that occur around us.

If we want our students to be proficient in algebraic reasoning, then we may need to rethink how we approach math.

Algebra is often taught as an abstract set of rules for manipulating cryptic symbols – and many adults have learned to fear algebra because of it. Activities based on real-life examples, solved with concrete tools like [play] money or other manipulatives, can combat these fears.

Donna also notes that the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) advocates for algebraic reasoning to be taught and learned at the very earliest ages (see graphic at right).1  This recommendation is echoed in all levels of the EFF Use Math to Solve Problems and Communicate Performance Continuum for adult learners.

For more on this topic, we recommend the following NCTM resource on Algebraic thinking — cited in both the LINCS discussion and the mini-course: A Journey in Algebraic Thinking, by Cathy L. Seeley

SO – based on the original article and the various viewpoints expressed, what are YOUR thoughts on the importance of algebra? Is algebra useful to everyone in their daily lives or only for those continuing into postsecondary education?

Why teach algebra to our adult learners? What are some examples of algebra – or algebraic thinking – in YOUR daily life? Your students lives?

Comment and add your voice to the buzz!

To learn more about teaching Algebraic thinking in the EFF online mini-course,  Algebrafying Arithmetic: Developing algebraic reasoning with ALL learners contact us via

Post Contributor:

Donna Curry, EFF Trainer & Content Expert, Center for Literacy Studies

References and Resources

1 National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Executive Summary: Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, pp 3-4., Reston, VA


Posted on August 8, 2012, in Math, Quality Practices. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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