Thursday, November 7, 2013

Yes Virginia, You do Use Algebra Everyday... you just don't know it.

***Disclaimer... I'm sure this post needs editing... but I'm going to have an 18 month old wake any moment and I wanted to get it out there while the thought was still hot!

This was posted on a friend's page (a friend, who is rather brilliant in my opinion). It made me sad that so many people think this is true. The reality is they use algebra every day and they are good at it. They just had to learn it in context and didn't realize the technical name for what they are doing. In school they were taught that it happened in a vacuum where math only happened in written equations on a chalkboard or on lined paper. Algebra in its simplest form is finding the missing number. Little kids can do it. 4 + x = 5. I had 5 batteries now I only have 4, one is missing... I better check to see what the toddler is playing with... I just did algebra. I had a $87.45 discrepancy on my bank statement, what check or checks didn't go through... I just did basic algebra again. I had to figure out how many yards of fabric my child's Halloween costume would take based on the measurements of my child... did it again.

Here in Alaska, the Anchorage School District had a brilliant elementary math curriculum for over a decade - Everyday Math by McGraw-Hill Education, they got rid of it this year. Now I'm not one to embrace most canned textbook programs, in fact you'll usually find me railing against them... but this one, this one is different... this one I fully support. Here's why (I've taught the 3rd, 4th, & 6th grade levels of it): It spirals and builds on knowledge from year to year, multiple ways of solving a problem are taught, strategies like partial product and partial quotient teach why the numbers work and aren't just an algorithm learned by rote. With the multiple strategies, students find problem solving skills that fit their way of learning, and also begin to understand that some strategies are more efficient than others. Math games are as much a part of the curriculum as practice pages, in fact they are more important. I know great teachers that took years rounding up the games that automatically come with the program. Through the games students learn how to apply the math in real world, everyday ways. Especially in 6th grade I learned so much more about math through this program. I had many aha moments, where I thought to myself "If only I had been taught this way!" I highly suggest home school parents try to get their hands on this program!

So what was the problem? Why did the district change programs? The first and understandable problem is that the texts and program assume that a student started the program in Kindergarten and have built upon their knowledge each year since. Fine for a town in Massachusetts, where families date back to the Mayflower, but not in a transient place like Alaska. A larger systemic problem in our society today.... FEAR OF CHANGE is the biggest reason this program was canned. Parents and teachers alike balked at it all along. "This isn't the way I learned math." was heard regularly. Well if I'm correct I haven't seen an abacus used lately.... math evolves. Our culture is so self-centered that if we can't relate to it, then we aren't going to allow our kids the opportunity to learn a better way. A deeply rooted fear of math that has been instilled in the last few generations because of bad pedagogy, has created parents who are scared of it and throw up a wall before they even try to understand it.

My biggest beef with letting go of EDM was the middle school and high school teachers who swore it was ruining the students. I'm pretty sure my kids understood why their algorithms worked better than their teachers when they moved on from elementary. This math in a new dialect was not carried over in texts in middle in high schools across the district. They still used the old ways and didn't continue on with the program.

Knowledge evolves! It seems so ironic to me that in a time of so much technological  advancement, we get in our own way, or more importantly our kids' way of learning better! Maybe it's a sign that our society is too fast paced, if we can't take the time to just try to learn a new way of long division.

Another reason for learning in context! Now isn't it nice to know you are smarter than you thought! You use algebra everyday to solve a myriad of regular old problems.