With all of the continued discussion over the importance of teaching algebra, I felt compelled to share some thoughts. It seems to me the conversation is centered around the wrong topic. Instead of asking if algebra is relevant (of course it is),  we should be asking, “Is the way we are teaching algebra relevant?”

Algebra, or any other math strand for that matter, is relevant to building well rounded, successful citizens. The content isn’t the problem… the pedagogy is. The problem is found in classrooms where the students sit silently, listening to the teacher deliver his or her math knowledge while demonstrating a series of algorithmic steps. Those teachers then require the students to follow exactly the same steps when solving equation after equation after equation. It’s how most of us experienced math – direct instruction, then 25 or so problems using the steps just demonstrated. Heaven forbid, you miss a step or in a moment of true rebellion, solve the problem in a different way. My own children have been forced to follow this stifling way of learning math. One weekend, my oldest son brought home a packet of 80 problems for his algebra 2 class. Since he was able to solve them without all of the steps the teacher required, he did so. (He’s a rebel.) His grade on that assignment…a 54%. Why? The reason I was given when I asked was that he didn’t show all of his work. Yes, he did. His work just required fewer steps.

One of the most frustrating things I experienced as a teacher was when parents would tell me they had horrible math experiences in school, yet they were upset when I didn’t teach their children the same way they had experienced. Math hasn’t changed. Math instruction needs to. Teachers need to stop expecting students to “do math” and start letting them experience math.

A few years ago, my school system transitioned to a student centered, problem focused approach to teaching math. We moved from the traditional algebra 1-geometry-algebra 2 sequence to an Integrated Math sequence. Since I had already been using this approach in my class, I was thrilled. Others were not. The role of the teacher was expected to change. No longer the “sage on the stage,” teachers were encouraged to introduce problem situations, then allow students to work together to reach conclusions.  I loved it and so did my students. Don’t get me wrong, it was difficult for them at first. Students are good at working side by side, but many students need to be explicitly taught how to have productive mathematical discourse. It was up to me to teach them, through questioning how to discuss math. The teachers who embraced this pedagogy saw great results. Teachers were questioning students and students were asking probing questions of each other. They were searching for answers and quickly realized that many paths can lead to the same solution. Math became relevant. One question became obsolete, “Why do I have to know this?” Students were free to explore mathematical ideas. They solved real world problems and in doing so, actually learned some algebra.

As a math teacher, I began every year by challenging myself to help the students assigned to me fear math less, take more risks and see how math is and will be relevant to them regardless of the path they choose. We need to change the conversation. Let’s stop spending so much time arguing whether or not algebra is necessary and spend some time discussing what’s happening in math class.