At least according to this opinion piece in the NY Times. I’ve talked about it before, but it warrants repeating: learning math is not about memorizing formulas or following the bouncing ball to get to the right answer. It is about understanding abstract thought and learning how to think. Algebra is that first rung of mathematics that has nothing to do with numbers, really. It is about using variables to stand in for relationships, balancing equations to show that input equal outputs, and presenting scenarios that could actually appear in real life and that a calculator can’t help set up. Heck, just the other day I was looking to buy a new computer monitor (adding a new on to my setup). My current monitor had a 16:10 ratio. My new one would need to be 16:9 (the new “standard”). However, the vertical height needed to be the same so that an image would not have to re-size as it went from screen to screen. To make matter worse, most of the websites only release the ratio and the corner-to-corner distance (viewing). So what size monitor would I need to get? My problem was rather unique, a calculator can’t help me, and I had no idea if I could trust some of the random calculators out there. Of course, a simple algebraic equation and a spread sheet and I had my answer. I was able to match my monitor vertical height to within a few mm with a simple equation. Because I know algebra, I new that an abstract relationship existed that I could exploit. Now, of course, there is plenty of opportunity (engineering speak for “lots of problems”) to improve the way we teach math to kids. I absolutely love what the folks over at the Khan Academy are putting together. I love how they are breaking down the material, making it accessible, and doing their best make it fun and approachable. So why not just improve our teaching methods rather than simply ditching the material?
I get a lot of questions about “math being too difficult” (answer: the passion for a subject often overwhelms the difficulty, usually influencing those studying advanced mathematics; at the lower levels you sometimes have to just grin-and-bear it) or whether or not math skills are innate or learned (answer: a little of both). Rarely, however, does some reach the level of mathematical understanding that the difficulty gives way to beauty. That why I love the work of the Enginarts’s featured in this article. Even if you don’t understand the math behind the structures, I believe you can see how complicated (yet oddly calming) the final product is.