The New York Times asks what no one else dares: Is algebra necessary?
“Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.” Andrew Hacker’s NYT opinion article
On Hacker’s vision to teach more “useful” topics in math classes, ie: how the Consumer Price Index is computed, Valerie Strauss says in her Huff Post article:
“The problem is that if you try to meet this challenge by teaching the specific skills that people need, you had better be confident that you’re going to cover all those skills. Because if you teach students the significance of the Consumer Price Index they are not going to know how to teach themselves the significance of projected inflation rates on their investment in CDs. Their practical knowledge will be specific to what you teach them, and won’t transfer.
The best bet for knowledge that can apply to new situations is an abstract understanding — seeing that apparently different problems have a similar underlying structure. And the best bet for students to gain this abstract understanding is to teach it explicitly.
But the explicit teaching of abstractions is not enough. You also need practice in putting the abstractions into concrete situations.”
Paul Zorn of Saint Olaf College agrees in his article published in Math Horizons:
“As Hacker observes, few workers use algebra explicitly in daily life. (We all use it implicitly.) To infer that algebra can therefore vanish from required curricula is mistaken. Similar arguments might be made against history, the humanities, and the sciences generally, none of which is widely practiced in daily life. More important in curricular design than eventual daily use are broader intellectual values, which algebra clearly serves: learning to learn, detecting and exploiting structure, exposure to the best human ideas, and—the educational Holy Grail—transferability to novel contexts.
Transferability is undeniably difficult, as Hacker duly notes. The National Research Council agrees and indeed stresses the value of “deeper learning,” of which a key element is the detection of structure.
“Transfer is supported,” says the NRC, when learners master general principles that underlie techniques and operations.
Algebra is a poster child for deeper instruction. We should teach it. Students can learn it.”
I still stand undecided.