“Algebra is an in-depth study of the last three letters of the alphabet.”

In my 18 years of teaching algebra, I can’t count how many times I’ve heard this humorous definition of algebra. Yes, I always “courtesy chuckle,” but honestly, hearing it also brings out slight feelings of disappointment and aggravation.

“In jest there is truth.” is a famous quote by William Shakespeare and it’s especially relevant here. Most secondary students and adults have taken an algebra course of some kind, but very few could define algebra, and even less understand why it’s so important to learn.

Anyway, enough of the pity party, let’s get to it.

This post is the first of a series of posts I’m writing about teaching and learning algebra. My goal here is to ensure that my readers understand what algebra is, which is foundational for the future posts in this series. In these future posts, I will discuss student perceptions of algebra, what makes algebra so challenging to learn and the Singapore approach to teaching algebra. Another of my goals in writing this is to emphasize why algebra is so essential for all students to learn.

## What is this Mysterious Thing They Call Algebra?

There are quite a few definitions of algebra that exist in the research, but I’ll distill them for us because the descriptions that come from the halls of higher academia are somewhat dense and dry.

I think that most importantly we should think of algebra as a tool. It’s a tool for modeling relationships among various quantities in the world in which we live. Algebra allows us to explore, predict and understand incredibly complex systems in areas such as finance, science, and engineering. It enables us to calculate probabilities and use statistical data to see into the future.

Algebra should also be thought of as a language. It is used to understand the laws of arithmetic and also as a framework for learning all higher mathematics.

## Why is it Important to Learn Algebra?

Now I know that not all students want to pursue careers in science or finance, but there’s an interesting question I find myself asking people all the time. How many kids avoid jobs and degrees that involve numbers because of an unnecessary anxiety they developed from bad experiences in mathematics? How many of these experiences do you think happened in algebra? I’m sure there are math teachers out there who want all their students to be mathematicians and scientists – I’m not one of them. I just want my students not to avoid doing something they may love because of a fear of mathematics.

More importantly, students need to understand that mathematics knowledge and ability is a significant gatekeeper in our society. Mathematics opens doors to colleges, careers, and other opportunities. And algebra is the language of higher mathematics. Simply put, people who understand math enjoy a better quality of life, regardless of the career path they choose.

Furthermore, it is also essential that our students understand that irrespective of their chosen career paths, mathematics is a platform to teach the mind to difficult tasks. They learn to reason, compare, estimate and solve problems. Math is power. After all, there’s a reason the College Board and ACT both choose mathematics and literacy as mandatory parts of their college entrance exams. It’s because they’re a crucial component to success in college. Few subjects are as cumulative and sequential as literacy and mathematics. If you arrive at the doorstep of your university barely literate and without basic mathematics knowledge and skills, you may as well not unpack your bag.

I hope this post informed, empowered or entertained you in some way. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me from the contact form.

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