USA has always been one of my top dream countries. It has probably half of my Facebook friends living in it, it has a bunch of cool universities, it values hard work and smartness. Or does it? Yesterday, through a bunch of outraged tweets* I found this article. It expresses the opinion that growing generation of Americans doesn‘t need algebra, because it‘s too difficult for both students and teachers. I mean, seriously, America?
OK, I understand that it‘s just one person speaking, and it‘s not an official policy or anything. But, in fact, a few years ago, someone else expressed a similar opinion. The mere fact that this opinion keeps cropping up is rather frightening to me. I mean, USA is like a big deal in the world. Even though people who fail high-school algebra are probably unlikely to run for government positions but presumably they vote on who is going to take the positions of power. Some people might think that one doesn‘t need algebra or any sort of education to make such decisions, but I disagree (as does this post which also cites some research articles showing that well-rounded education is good for the people and the country). Algebra, among other things, teaches you to think. Admittedly, other subjects do that as well. But, I think, knowing just history or literature leaves one rather lopsided in their thinking, so to speak. I would rather my country‘s voters were well-rounded thinkers. Mind you, I‘m the one to speak – my country is plenty messed up, but at least I haven‘t heard people talking about taking stuff out of our high-school curriculum. If anything, it‘s the opposite. For instance, in 11th grade at a (very good) public school I was studying the sort of maths that my parents only studied at university.
Someone says that they live a happy life without any algebra – but they have had it at school, haven‘t they? So, in my opinion, they can‘t say that they‘re living without it or that they don‘t need it, because it‘s there, in their brains, however small the effect of those algebra classes was, they still fired up and shaped their neural networks somehow – human brain works in mysterious ways, there‘s no knowing what algebra did to their brains. Unless they just came in, put their fingers in their ears and hummed to themselves the whole time. But I wouldn‘t put much stock in the opinion of people whose solution to a difficult problem is to put their fingers in their ears and close their eyes.
And here, I simply have to stop for a moment and disbelievingly marvel at the fact that an adult can say they don‘t need something they studied at school. I mean, isn‘t that something children say? That they won‘t need to know fractions or how air moves in and out of our lungs or what the key points in world and country history are. Adults are supposed to tell kids that they‘ll need everything, that it‘s important to learn. But thing is one can never know what they‘ll need in the course of their life. In 12th grade I had already decided I was going to study Biophysics and I didn‘t think I needed to pay much attention in history, because why would a scientist ever need to know dates of some random battles? I actually spent my history classes doing my maths or science homework (I‘m sorry, Mrs History). Now, as I go abroad or meet people from other countries, I often find myself scavenging my memory for stuff about my country‘s history. In a similar fashion, once at university many Molecular Biology students in my year who had similarly ignored physics found themselves stuck in physics and maths classes again and probably couldn‘t even do their work without statistics**. So, I think, a well-rounded high-school education is very important, because it should have one ready to learn things their lives might require or tackle various problems. Of course, everything won‘t happen to you, but you never know, and whatever you have learnt will add to your person, not take away from it. At the very least, you‘ll have learnt to look at a problem from a bunch of different perspectives, try and solve it and not run away because it seems scary at first glance.
If such a huge per cent of students fails algebra (or any other subject), evidently, there is a problem. But is erasing it really the best solution? – See? Problem solving in action. There don‘t seem to be any x‘s or y‘s in here, and yet, we still need to identify the components of the problem and their relations in order to solve it, don‘t we? My understanding of the USA public school system is rather limited, but from what I gather, there are a few components to the problem. There are students who don‘t want to learn / don‘t pay attention. There are teachers who are ill-equipped to teach. The latter is somewhat of a problem in my country as well: fewer and fewer high-school graduates choose to study to become teachers, thus, only the ones who don‘t get in anywhere else, end up there. And even they don‘t like to actually go on and teach. It‘s difficult, it pays little. So, a couple of years ago, a bank teamed up with a teaching institution to start a programme to get fresh college graduates into teaching. The idea is that, say, someone with a degree in Biophysics could go into a summer training programme to learn teaching skills and afterwards they‘d have to work at a school for 2 years teaching physics, for example, and in addition to the usual teacher salary (which is even smaller when you start out) they‘d get a scholarship. After those 2 years, they could choose to continue teaching or move onto something else. That‘s obviously not a full solution, but I think it helps.
Then we have the students. I confess, I can‘t really understand people who don‘t want to learn. It‘s as though they don‘t like thinking which is one of my favourite things to do. As for the rest, I refuse to believe that such a huge per cent of kids as cited in the articles above is simply unable to get algebra. Obviously, there are a number of reasons one might fail – they give up too easily, they don‘t understand, they don‘t get enough help or yet something else. It‘s difficult to say anything without more detailed data. I can just share something else that we have in my country. That is, an option to those who don‘t want a college education or are failing at school. After 10 grades, they can opt to leave high-school and go to a „profession school“, where they complete their high-school education with a somewhat easier curriculum, so they don‘t usually go onto college because that‘s usually not enough to get good final high-school exam results***, but they get profession training (like carpenter, mechanic, hairdresser, and so on).
There‘s one other thing that particularly irritates me in the articles linked above. Those guys are talking that algebra is too difficult, too abstract for American students to grasp. Do they think that teenagers in the USA are less smart, less able than kids from the rest of the world? Way to make the kids feel good about themselves, as if the actual failing wasn‘t enough – now, the kids have an adult actually telling them they shouldn‘t even bother because they won‘t get it anyway or it‘ll cost too much effort. Way to help bring up hardworkers (I thought that‘s who the grand US of A is standing on). Also, algebra too abstract, too difficult to grasp? Letters, numbers and symbols – it‘s the most distilled down, most condensed version of problems you‘ll ever get, how can someone deal with life problems involving people or issues that are far more complex if they can‘t deal with a simple equation? Oh, and heck, if we’re starting to question the worth of algebra, why stop there? These guys see no “compelling answer” why they should bother with algebra. My brother could say the same about literature. He would have lived a happier life if he had never met his lit teacher. Trying to understand the convoluted sentences of Shakespeare**** or plough through Crime and Punishment had no visible effect on him. And what use is the exercise of memorising poems or dates? It’s not what you’re going to need for a job. This post over at scientopia blogs sums up my thoughts on why thinking of high-school and college education as job training is wrong. Education should have people ready to learn stuff needed for a job.
Anyway, I guess this problem boils down to whether we want the population to be able to think or not. It looks like at least these two guys think that it‘s too much effort to try and bring up thinking people. I guess I won‘t be so surprised if one of my professor‘s prediction comes true – that we‘ll soon invent actual artificial intelligence to do stuff for us and it‘ll become smarter and enslave us, Matrix style or worse.
Wondering how I managed to start with the importance of algebra and arrive at an apocalyptic scenario,
*Man, I love twitter. That‘s pretty much the only news outlet I‘m able to reach from under my rock.
**My examples are as limited as my experience, if you‘d like more, specifically related to maths, take a look here.
***In my country these are national. Students can pick from 2 difficulty levels. The easier level is graded 1-10 based on how many points they get and is usually not enough to get into university programmes which have any competition (but in recent years, some science programmes accepted everyone who applied, because there were fewer people applying than there were available places). The more difficult level is graded in 2 stages: first, there‘s a point mark which determines pass or fail, and then the students from the whole country who passed are graded in a curve and get marks 1-100. 1% of students who got the most points get 100, then the second 1% get 99 and so on.
****I imagine that’s my brother’s opinion. I personally read Othello in English just last year, and while it took me some time and reading aloud to start understanding it, it was a very satisfying and fun experience.