Q&A #1739

Teachers' Lounge Discussion: Purpose of studying algebra

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From: RON

To: Teacher2Teacher Public Discussion
Date: 2003061012:41:43
Subject: Re: Re: Re: : Purpose of studying algebra

In attempting to answer the question "Why study algebra?" the
conversation seems to have drifted quite a bit into a much more
fundamental and general problem in education, namely motivation.

The reason as to why people do what they do is clearly an unanswered
question. Some are self-motivated, others are externally motivated.
Some are proceeding along a well defined path, others are simply
drifting. In the case of students, the vast majority of the usual
public education curriculum is general enough in nature to have no
real direct bearing on what a student deems to be important. I do not
really believe that any particular subject area knowledge is at issue
here. The better question seems to be "Why study?"

Even though every engineer has to study vast amounts of complex
mathematics (such as three dimensional integral calculus) in college,
just ask them five years after they are on the job to state when they
actually use it. The usual response is seldom if ever. 

However, that does not diminish the value of formal education. In the
area of mathematics, the gain seems to be one of improving deductive
reasoning skills which often makes problem solving simpler. With the
proper instruction, other curricula could be used to achieve a similar
gain. A rigorous study of philosophy, for example, can often lead
students to a better ability to scrutinize logical arguments and
distinguish sound forms from fallacious ones.

In any case, the clear answer to the question "Why study algebra?"
seems to be "It depends." If parents/instructors are going to have to
defend all instructions given to students with some sort of "valid"
reason for each student, there will not be any time left for
instruction in the actual curriculum. When the students are
responsible for their own lives (financially, legally, etc.) then
perhaps they will no longer need to ask the question "Why study?"
Maybe by then, they will have figured out a reason which fits their
own personal agenda in life. Until that time arrives, most students
and instructors will in fact waste a large amount of time. Efficiency
in education for the purpose of employable skills or finding one's lot
in life is not found in the general curriculum or instruction methods
of public education.

The redeeming feature seems to be offering an opportunity to be
exposed to a great variety of areas, leaving the choosing of which
ones are important to an individual to be done later.

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