kitchen table math, the sequel: algebra 1 & geometry, too

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

algebra 1 & geometry, too

This exchange from the Ed Week chat is interesting:

Question from Jon Joseph Madison WI School System:

The most important mathematics I teach high school learners is the math of daily living - doing taxes, computing percents, understanding a mortgage. One of the reasons that parents can't help the students with the type of math we currently teach is because they have never used it since they graduated from high school. Granted, some students need algebra, geometry and calculus but for the vast majority is this really required?

Tom Loveless:

Students must have a thorough grounding in arithmetic, that's for sure. But an awful lot of jobs in the new economy require knowledge of algebra and geometry as well, and there is no reason why the vast majority of students can't master those topics. Other nations do it, and so can we. By the way, Teaching the New Basic Skills by Richard Murnane and Frank Levy is a great book to read on this question.

I've always wondered about this - how much math do regular people actually use beyond arithmetic?

Geometry makes sense, but how do regular folk use algebra on the job? (I don't object to state standards requiring mastery of algebra 1; quite the opposite. But I haven't been able to see where many people use algebra in the workplace.)

I had no idea Murnane addresses this; I have the book upstairs.


Instructivist said...

"Geometry makes sense, but how do regular folk use algebra on the job?"

Geometry and algebra can crop up in all sorts of situations.

I was once teaching ESL to a Mexican worker in a limestone factory that made stones for construction, and unexpectedly found an opportunity to teach some math. Part of his job was to make templates for arches. All he was given by the customers was the chord and rise. He needed to know the radius to make the template. He was desperate to learn how to calculate the radius. After some research, I was able to teach him the formula and how to use it. He was beaming. At other times he needed to make templates for ellipses. I taught him how to calculate the distance between foci and how to construct an ellipse with nails, a string and pencil. He was beaming once again.

All this mixes geometry and algebra in the practical world.

Anonymous said...

I write software for a living, so you could say that I use algebra every day. I mean, what is:

double avgRevenue = totalRevenue / numSold;

if it isn't algebra? Okay, that's a simplistic example that isn't representative of what I really do, so maybe that's just arithmetic with symbols... but wait, isn't "arithmetic with symbols" just a long-winded phrase for "algebra"?

The software that I write deals with statistics, econometrics, linear programming, etc. It's not your average shopping cart application. But even your average shopping cart application contains code with symbolic representations of mathematical equations.

IMHO, this goes back to the idea that, sure, many people will never use anything higher than basic arithmetic in their careers, but if you stop your math learning with basic arithmetic, you've effectively cut yourself off from being a doctor, a pharmacist, a computer programmer, a veterinarian, any sort of engineer, an economist, a patent attorney, and a host of other enjoyable white-collar careers.

It's always nice to have choices.

Anonymous said...

I knew I forgot an important one. Architects use both algebra and geometry.

SteveH said...

I suppose that a high school teacher could argue that (after all of the damage has been done and all of the doors have been closed) there are other things that would help these students for their daily living more than algebra.

However, it would be nice to see these teachers still trying to open doors no matter how closed they seem. With a little more effort on their part, and a willingness of the student to try one more time, the teacher might completely change their world.

This is so much more important than learning to balance a checkbook. By the way, a little algebra will greatly help kids understand how a mortgage (the time value of money) works.

Me said...

instructivist and googlemaster both did a great job. I would extend the first answer to any building trade or any activity where you use formulas.

Many jobs require setting up and using spreadsheets. Even secretaries need this skill nowadays.

People with cash flow problems may need to use algebra in deciding how to juggle their various accounts.

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