Saturday, September 5, 2015

A Simple Solution to the Algebra Teaching Conundrum

Instead of arguing back and forth about the value of teaching algebra, why not allow students to throw out their worst grade - whether it's in math or the dreaded phys ed?

A Simple Solution to the Algebra Teaching Conundrum


People are still chattering about a July 28 New York Times piece titled “Is Algebra Necessary?” Author Andrew Hacker argued that American schools should drop algebra from the list of required courses. Hacker claims that algebra wasn’t useful to him, and, beyond that, it’s so fearsome a subject that it puts students at risk of dropping out of school entirely. 

A number of science bloggers made counter-arguments. Two good ones include this post by Jennifer Ouellette at Cocktail Party Physics and this one by P.Z. Myers at the always interesting Pharyngula.

Why not come up with a solution that reduces math anxiety without having to trash algebra? Why not, for example, allow a throw–out or two when calculating GPA?  What’s a throw-out? I got this idea from sailboat racing. In regattas with multiple races, competitors are sometimes allowed to eliminate their worst race from the final scoring. If you have, say, six races, you can remain in the competition even if in one of those races something broke on your boat or someone ran into you or some other disaster struck.

I’m a total geek and loved math, but I would have been happy to throw out physical education. I know, exercise is important for long-term health blah blah blah, but I didn’t happen to have much aptitude for the sports that were offered. I would have hated P.E. a lot less had I known I could throw out my C or whatever gym teachers thought I deserved.

With a throw-out or two, students could relax. They could make a good faith effort to learn algebra knowing that their GPAs weren’t at risk. They might find they enjoyed learning math even if they weren’t "A" students. And students might take more risky electives – trying art or creative writing, for example, knowing they had the freedom to fail. 

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About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at Reach Planet of the at

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