Friday, April 06, 2007

Al Gebra

225 Algebra

Have you ever met a quadratic equation? Well, no one else has either. How about factoring (33x + 22y + the square root of minus 23?) Never happened. Never will.

So why are they still teaching this stuff.

The pocket calculator, worth all of maybe two bucks these days, eliminated the need for elementary algebra for anyone not heading for the lab. Some research on why it’s still taught and why you should learn it.

The best reason for learning it – or at least the best published reason is “because it’s there.” No argument with the idea of learning for learning’s sake. Another reason? It stretches the mind. Not for a lot of people, though. What it does is send them into spasms of fear and loathing normally reserved for Satan.

Actually, it’s a system of contractions. Variables, powers, roots, and all that stuff is shorthand – shorthand you can do arithmetically with a simple and inexpensive piece of electronics.

And no one seems to find a connection between real life and abstract elementary math.

People who are offended by reliance on a calculator are from the same school that is offended by the need to take some medicine regularly for a lifetime. They don’t want to rely on calculators, they don’t want to rely on Zoloft or Lunesta.

That’s like saying “if I can’t walk, I’m not going to rely on a wheel chair.” Okay. Sit there. No one will miss you. But you will be true to yourself. You won’t rely on a wheelchair.

People fear math. It’s like fearing Albanian. Do you know anyone who speaks Albanian? Probably not. Do you fear having to deal with it? Again, probably not. So why do you fear math?

Do you fear street signs with little pictures instead of words? You may not like them, you may not always understand them. But you more or less know that you’re being told something – and you don’t fear them.

Maybe if you pulled over to a safe spot on the road and studied the sign you don’t understand, you’d eventually get the gist.

So what of the abstractions in elementary algebra? If you have an ordinary serving of grey matter, chances are you can figure that out, too. Once you get over that clutching feeling in your chest or that knot in your stomach, that is.

Another of the reasons we don’t like this stuff is because of the way it’s taught. Instructors, professors, middle school teachers all race at breakneck speed through a pile of processes that seem disconnected from one another – except that you need to master chapter one before you master chapter two.

And when you come to the end of the book and the end of the course, you’re left with a pile of parts and no diagram about how to put it all together.

Well, there days you don’t need to put it together – unless you’re planning a career in chemistry or physics.

So the answer is this: become a closet calculator. Keep the thing under wraps. Let no one know that you’re electronics-dependent. If you’re sneaky enough, you can live your whole life without anyone discovering your dirty little secret.

I'm Wes Richards, my opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.

(c) 2007 WJR

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