It Has Been a Long While

I keep meaning to post. In fact, I have partial word documents with thoughts of weeks long gone. I was going to make a massive post, but I decided to split them up so as not to overwhelm anybody looking for a quick update.

Week 6: Hacker Gets Hacked

This has to be one of my favorite combination of readings, not only because of the content, but because of the writing. Dr. Keith Devlin’s argument was beautifully executed. Also, his argument reflected many of my thoughts on “Hacker’s Plan” for getting rid of Algebra II. As a mathematics major, getting through Hacker’s article included about fifty eye-rolls and thirty huffs of frustration. He was playing into a common held idea that algebra is completely useless. I can understand and see where he is coming from, but his argument was plagued with incorrect information and half-truths. Also, the part where he says we should replace algebra courses with a statistics course because 47% versus 55% fail…well, that’s about half for both… and that is also quite precise to makes that 47% look better to the general public. There are issues with how algebra is taught, but getting rid of it doesn’t seem to be the best course of action.

Just as I was close to losing it over Hacker’s article, I read Devlin’s article regarding Hacker’s. I went from a ripping-my-hair-out mentality to one of elation. He carefully, and respectfully, deconstructed the layers of Hacker’s argument for ridding the earth, and nearby planets, of algebra. The best part of the argument was that Devlin used Hacker as a springboard to say that Hacker has a point under all of the absurdity. Devlin gives us the real argument regarding algebra, which lies in the skewed idea of what algebra really is. It isn’t just a group of letters without meaning that we have to solve.

In Hacker versus Devlin, we see a mathematician defending his field against an outsider holding common societal views on the meaning of algebra. He mentions the real “villain” of algebra, who happens to be a Frenchman by the name of François Viète. He brought to us the mechanical version of algebra where we are given a set of formulas with which we are to evaluate and enter numbers. (He seems to be the reason why we can’t have nice things.) Instead of thinking logically about problems, it has become a game of meaningless alphabet soup.

I believe the most important part of the article is the fact that people should question information and understand the reasons why we are learning what we learn. On the internet, most people will read an article and run with it, especially if the source is credible. Questioning authority is not commonplace anymore. It is like the vaccination debate. Reading a couple of articles seems to be the equivalent of a doctoral degree in an unrelated subject matter. Andrew Hacker is not a mathematician. He raises some issues, but misses the mark when it comes to the conclusions. As a mathematics major, my trust would lie in a mathematician and my own experiences to formulate an opinion. For non-mathematics majors, I would suggest taking math advice from a person who is immersed in the subject. (Not someone who is playing on the common ideas and negative views that the everyday person has about math, especially algebra.) Sometimes, what you want to hear is not always correct. Open minds and open ears can lead to fields of change. We can’t keep throwing ourselves into echo chambers.

I say that, knowing it won’t happen. Algebra is not the problem. The problem lies in the system and its requirements for how it should be taught. Algebra was intended as a way of thinking, not just the symbols on the page. Here is where I throw in hope of changing the system and that we should be the next generation of teachers to change it and all of that jazz. The reality is that the brunt of changing the system is placed on new teachers and unless we want to start WWIII or the Teacher Revolution (which doesn’t have a nice ring to it), we will not be able to do much. I think something more needs to happen. However, I’m not certain what this something is. Students vary in regard to learning styles and time it takes for understanding. Trying to generalize any specific strategies is nearly impossible. A possible solution is to make changes at the classroom level. It takes time, but if teachers stir in everything they have learned and work around what they are given, then change can potentially happen on a small scale, at least at the beginning. It might not be possible to completely reconstruct the education system, but patching up the frayed pieces seems to be the best option. We have a shell that can be used. We can take parts that work and glue them together to stabilize the fragile framework.

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