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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Algebra in 2nd Grade?

In February, 2009 a teacher in Montana made EdWeek headlines because she was teaching algebra to second graders and had been doing so for five years. Why all the oohs and aahs?

Elementary math is supposed to prepare students for high-level math classes in middle and high school. Students should not need a dedicated pre-algebra class. When I was a kid, pre-algebra did not exist. Now it is part of every school's math course line-up.

The author of a pre-algebra text wants students to build math reasoning skills. However math reasoning often does not happen. Many teachers treat pre-algebra as a last chance for students to get those blind elementary math procedures down pat. Problem is, a student can be A+ in procedures and still not understand algebra. In fact, students competent with procedure often believe they are good at math. It is not their fault. Our education system has been telling them for years that grades equal understanding. So if they get a good grade in math, naturally they conclude they are good at math.

Math has been misnamed. What passes for math in schools is often non-math. “Carry the one” is not a mathematical explanation for what happens in addition. It is a blind procedure. Students get good grades in non-math believing it is math. No wonder algebra is such a shock. Math reasoning skills actually matter in algebra.

Still a student with a good memory can get by, at least until they meet a new math monster, calculus. However, since middle and high school math also fail to teach math reasoning, now students take pre-calculus, another relatively recent addition to course offerings. Without a major change of emphasis, pre-calculus prepares students no better for calculus than pre-algebra prepared them for algebra.

By now pre-calculus students have so internalized non-math that they complain to the instructor, “Just tell us how to get the answer. We don't want to know why.” Just give us some more blind procedures.

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