Why Learn Algebra?
A discussion of the benefits of learning algebra

Why Learn Algebra?<br>A discussion of the benefits of learning algebra
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The truth is that you really do not "need" algebra unless you plan to teach it or use it in a scientific profession. But before you put away your algebra books, let me give you some good reasons "for" learning algebra.

Algebra is a very unique discipline. It is very abstract. The abstract-ness of algebra causes the brain to think in totally new patterns. That thinking process causes the brain to work, much like a muscle. The more that muscle works out, the better it performs on OTHER tasks. In simple terms, algebra builds a better brain (as do other disciplines such as learning an instrument, doing puzzles, and, yes, even some video games). When the brain is stimulated to think, the hair-like dendrites of the brain grow more extensive and more complex enabling more connections with other brain cells. We often hear that we use only a small percentage of our brain's capacity. The study of algebra is a way to increase our use of this marvelous muscle. By studying algebra, more "highways" are "built" upon which future "cargo" is transported -- cargo other than algebra.

My favorite analogy is comparing learning algebra to the construction of the railway system in the United States in the 1800's. When railroads were built, surely those men never conceived of the items that would be transported on those rails more than a hundred years later. They could not have imagined home appliances and computer equipment traveling over that railway system. But they knew that building the transportation system was important. So is it with the study of algebra -- you learn algebra by transporting numbers and variables -- later, those variables will change and you will transport something useful for your purposes.

An example in my own life is the four-year break I took from math education when I founded an activities company in Hawaii. I ran the business myself -- from creating forms, organizing activities for up to 1100 people per week, with folks going off in multiple directions for horseback riding, snorkeling, land tours, helicopter rides, deep sea fishing, windsurfing, etc, etc, etc -- busses and vans were coming and going at half hour intervals and only one person missed their ride -- out of 1100 people -- not too bad! So what's my point? I think that the ability to organize a rational procedure for handling this kind of chaos came from my algebra background. You lay out the variables, design a procedure, and follow the procedure. It is an intense form of organization.

Having said all this... I do believe after 30 years of experience with students, that learning algebra is truly not for everyone. I once had a 9th grade girl in my algebra class who, when I fretted over her disinterested attitude toward algebra, kept reassuring me that she really did not need to learn algebra for her life. Today, she is a successful TV actress and every time I see her on the tube, I say, "Charlotte, you were right!"

Which brings me to the right brain / left brain discussion. An actress, actor, or artist of any kind is a "right brain" dominated person. These people usually do not have an affinity for algebra. For the creative mind, algebra is usually quite a struggle. Those making an attempt to learn algebra bring themselves closer to understanding the mind of a "left brain" person for whom math, science, and usually, languages come easy. Much of our public school curriculum is based upon the latter -- a "classical" education rather than an artistic "romantic" education.

Add to all this discussion above the fact that America needs a strong educated populace to fill the more than 1.2 million job openings in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) by 2018. This includes scientists, doctors, software developers and engineers. There will be a significant shortage of qualified college graduates to fill these careers. Students must be encouraged to pursue STEM-related fields. Learning Algebra and beyond can be stimulating and challenging and offer the potential of a good salary. Having a strong Algebra foundation will provide unlimited opportunities for a satisfying productive career and livelihood.
"Learning algebra isn't about acquiring a specific tool; it's about building up a mental muscle that will come in handy elsewhere. You don't go to the gym because you're interested in learning how to operate a StairMaster; you go to the gym because operating a StairMaster does something laudable to your body, the benefits of which you enjoy during the many hours of the week when you're not on a StairMaster." -- Steven Johnson, "Everything Bad Is Good For You"
There are other disciplines, which will help build a better brain, but curriculum designers have chosen learning algebra as a universal "brain builder" along with preparing those strong left-brain students for careers in math and science.

Copyright 2003-2013 Illana Herzig Weintraub for MathMedia Educational Software, Inc. www.mathmedia.com