# “What’s the point of algebra?”

How many times have you been asked “what’s the point of algebra?”? I feel like I have never had a good answer to this question that is relavent to the kids and their lives. Let’s find out what Great Maths Teaching Ideas’ readers think! Do you have a good answer to this question that will satisfy the kids? If so, please share it with us in the comments section below! 🙂

I tell my students that its the first step up after numbers. We are now learning how to juggle with things we don’t know, and how make them come down with what we can know, showing.

Great question William! I think it’s something that every maths teacher faces. Once the language of algebra is understood, students can begin to apply to a host of interesting problems e.g. comparisons of phone bills, look at rates of change, in geometry, etc.

A little while ago I wrote a blog contemplating the issue. In the end, I think that we should not limit what our students are learning because it is difficult for some. Learning is not intended to be easy!

For me, algebra is all about equations, and equations are about relationships.

If you want to look at the relationship between quantities, cause and effect, variables, parameters or change, you’re going to use algebra.

If you’ve ever wondered how something would change if you fiddled with this or that, you’re going to use algebra.

What if it’s on sale? What if I increase my data usage? What if I talk less and text more?…all algebra.

One simple, relatable answer I’ve been giving kids lately is that they might need to be a spreadsheet manipulator at some point. I tell my classes, “I know that only about half of you will end up majoring in math.” (The top level kids, who will major in math/science, laugh; the lower-level kids don’t get my veiled sarcasm and truly believe that half of them will be math majors – the half that does NOT include them as individuals, of course. “But MANY of you will be responsible for working with formulas at some point, and it’s much better to be the person who enters a formula correctly OR recognizes a bad formula than to be the person who enters a bad formula.” They seem to understand that, and in fact a lot of them say that their parents are database or spreadsheet users at work.

A familiar ongoing battle with my year 9s!

I generally talk about the fact that we are trying to find out something we don’t know ,similar to Laurence. we don’t know if Mars can accommodate life, we don’t know if global warming will flood the planet, we don’t know if there will be an Ice age ever again, and we don’t know the value of x, or do we….?

and in return, generally blank faces and more abuse…

I like this answer & Laurence’s. At age 40 something I’m having to learn basic algebra in prep for a psychometric test & I began to wonder, whats the point of algebra. The idea that its a method to quantify the unknown intrigues me & gives me that bit of extra motivation to wrestle with it!

I love this answer coz my teacher told me to do it and I just stared at him blankly. this was 40 years ago.

Wrongly or rightly, this can be used on occasion, and if not, it does make me smile:

Student: What’s the point of algebra?

Teacher: No point….if you’re going to flip burgers in McDonalds.

I didn’t realize being a programmer involved naming a trinomial and understanding quadratics…

This is an ongoing theme with my y11 set 5.

They ask at least once a lesson when studying any algebraic topic, it has become like a ‘read us a story’ request to settle them before the ‘bedtime’ of something they wont really enjoy.

My response is threefold:

Some students will actually need to manipulate expressions and equations in spreadaheets, cashflow, planning for unknown situation where you dont know quantities in advance, some element of abstract rather than concrete thinking etc

Most employers will expect staff to be able to learn and follow routines and procedures in a logical manner, not with numbers or algebra, but these are the skills that we are really learning when we learn algebra.

Thirdly, the one that I am less pleased about rekating to them, as I believe the first two should be sufficient, is that you can get a better GCSE grade if you can understand and do more algebra!

I think we should teach algebra through projects and questions that are relevant to our students today — not years in the future. What are your students interested in? I’ve come up with a couple of ideas/projects/questions that provide a context for teaching algebra. Plot the growth of YouTube use. Then create an equation from the data and make a prediction about YouTube use in the future. Create an equation representing Justin Bieber’s number of twitter followers and how fast that number is increasing. Is he going to over take Lady Gaga as the twitter account with the most followers? Create a project about owning/buying a car (lots of teenagers are interested in driving). I don’t think it’s enough to tell students that they might use algebra in the future. Many of them won’t have to use algebra for their careers. Use algebra now, in class, to study problems and questions that the kids are interested in TODAY.

This was the first real answer in this thread that made sense!

Agreed! This answer is relevant to students and one that I can apply. The other answers are the lame “in your future you will need to follow instructions…blah,blah,blah.” The best teachers make it relate to me now.

I love this answer. A 10-12 year old does NOT want to hear about what their bosses are going to want from them 10 years from now, as they are already struggling to cope with what society (and us, their teachers, want from them). They need to relate to the math. We need to make it apply for today.

I always tell them it’s like, “I’m thinking of a number,” and then I give them a clue as to what the number is, like, “If I double the number and subtract 1, I get the same thing as if I just added 3 to the original number.” We start by guessing, but then things get difficult because I start “thinking of a number” like 2.5, which they might not guess right away. The point is that whenever faced with a problem, you don’t have all the information, and you have to use the information you do have in order to figure it out.

Using algebra saves writing down an infinite number of calculations, using every possible combination of numbers!

It fosters problem solving and abstract thinking which are useful qualities no matter what field you eventually have a career in.

There’s a lot of answers to this:

1) it’s a good place to practice reasoning and problem solving

2) the content is powerful and has become the language of quantitative thought. It’s the generalization of what we know about numbers and how they relate to each other. It has become a language in which we can solve problems in other areas of math. How big, how far, how fast, how long, how many… and why.

3) because of that, those who learn it have academic power and can choose from a wider variety of careers and vocations. I want my students to have that power.

4) it’s beautiful. We started by asking concrete questions about number and wound up with a discipline filled with symmetry and amazement, structures that surprise and confound us. As a bonus, after we find these things in algebra, sometimes we get to recognize these same structures in nature. It’s beautiful AND real!

Philosophical

During their lives, people are looking for the meaning of life. Well, algebra is the meaning of life in mathematics.

Day to day

No algebra => No Google and or mobile phone. Choose your side!

if there was no algebra then I wouldn’t be able to live coz I need to go on Google every day for my boss. I now love algebra. thanks Samuel

My son has Diabetes Type 1. We use Algebra every day. The insulin producing cells in his pancreas were attacked and killed by his own immune system. When he eats we use algebra. If 30 weight grams of goldfish crackers has 20 grams of carbs, but there’s only 20 weight grams of crackers left in the bag, then how many grams of carbs is that? 30/20 = 20/x 30x=20×20 30x=400 30x/30=400/30 x=13.3 There are about 13 grams of carbs in that serving of crackers. Now that he has an insulin pump, the pump does other calculations for us, for instance, how many units of insulin he needs if he gets 1 unit for 50 grams of carbs. For those crackers: 1unit/50carbs=Xunits/13 carbs Can you do the math?

It’s a good workout for your brain cells.

Short and sweet but then allows me to get on with the lesson. I did used to try to explain fully but I think this question is usually just a tactic to get out of doing the work.

I tell mine that they do Algebra all the time in their heads. Ie Coles has a deal that 3 chocolates cost $2.50, how much is each chocolate (3x=2.50). Algebra let’s us solve harder problems that we can’t do in our heads. It is exercise for our brains!!

It is a base of all the branches of maths, it is just a reverse process of arithmetic. In arithmetic we find the answers and here we know the answers and just find out the questions.

I am a student at secondary school. I have no problem with algebra, except it has no role in later life and to teach it just because its hard makes no sense. If we are taught algebra just as a change or just because it’s hard, then surely there would be just as much use in learning Hebrew and/or Latin.

At the beginning of the school year, I answer that exact question so that there is hardly a time where a student will ask me it later in the year. I say something like this: “Math in general, especially algebra, is about learning how to become a good thinker and problem solver. All of us have problems – big and small – and when we encounter these problems, we want to make good decisions. Math is training your mind to think in a logical way so that you can make good decisions in life.” All of my students sort of go – yeah, that makes sense now.