Saturday, February 18, 2006

Algebra Made Cute

There's a great (and very long) comment thread running at Pharyngula, regarding this essay by the Washington Post's Richard Cohen. Quick summary: It's the story of a young woman who dropped out of a Los Angeles high school after failing algebra six times.

The comments have elaborated on the story, bringing into the mix such disparate elements as poor teaching, poor student attitudes, whether standardized testing is a good or a bad thing, whether it's elitist or anti-elitist to expect all kids to get a rigorous education, and just why (and whether) this algebra stuff is important in the first place. My own opinions on this issue are somewhat mixed. While I'd hate to see a 17-year-old girl feel like a failure because she struggles with math, I also hate to see 17-year-olds convincing themselves that they can't do math in the first place, much less using it as an excuse to start cutting class and eventually transferring to the School of Fast-Food Career Options. (For one thing, I doubt that this happened in an affluent neighborhood; kids from well-off families just don't fall through the cracks this thoroughly.) Closer to home, algebra is something I use daily, and not just because at work I mix solutions in volumes ranging from a few microliters to the metric jugful. Simple mathematical reasoning of this nature goes a long way when one is cooking, shopping, or trying to figure out whether one really, really needs to fill up the gas tank at the next Thruway rest stop or can wait until passing the Albany interchange.

And, coincidentally, my friend Pam just sent me this little diversion, mentioning that it took her a few minutes to figure it out. A hint that most of my regular readers won't need: A little algebra, plus a tiny stretch of one's symbolic reasoning skills, will do it. (People who know me really well also know that my own visual skills require some prodding before they kick in, so for me, the algebra was what got me there first.)

Okay, the above is just for fun, of course. I was going to write that most people know there's a trick to this, but given some of the urban legends that wind up in my mailbox under the return addresses of people I consider intelligent, maybe that's not a given. Does a lack of abstract reasoning skills make people more susceptible to unsupportable ideas? Well, I don't know the answer to that one either. I'm sure there's a literature on this somewhere. To regular readers who might possess actual evidence that can answer the question: Have at it. After all, it's been a slow day.

1 Comments:

At 6:08 PM, Anonymous Rebecca said...

I got C's and D's in algebra. I was forced to take something called "basic algebra" before my highschool would allow me to take algebra 1. While in basic algebra, another student stabbed me with a pen. I didn't enjoy this class. The average income in my school district was about 80K a year. So it wasn't an overall problem with the school.

I failed at geometry, too (my grades were barely at passing level). I didn't drop out of school. I just stopped taking math after geometry. I knew I wouldn't use higher mathematics. I knew I probably couldn't use them (I've always struggled with math). So I took classes that I knew I could perform in. I still took honors level science. I knew my grades wouldn't be terrific there, either (chemistry is pretty math intensive), but I really wanted to learn that subject matter.

I got in to a decent college. I graduated from high school. I still have nightmares where I'm back in high school at the age of 33 because I didn't take enough math. I don't understand why they made that student take the same class six times. I think at that point, you might actually be better off getting a GED. Which is sad. I think I'll blame it on the government and the evils of No Child Left Behind.

 

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