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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