You can always judge my level of incredulity by my combination of punctuation. Two exclamation marks bookended by two question marks is a high level indeed. It’s the DEFCON 1 of incredulity. It comes from the way I’ve seen a lot of my students conditioned in algebra. It’s extremely sad. I’ll explain, but I have to start with a story about something that happened last week.
Thursday night I came home from play rehearsal and got the debrief about the household goings-on from my wife. Turns out my daughter, my 11-year old angel of happiness, was crying for something like 2 hours while I was gone. Dads out there with daughters (and I guess daughters with dads?) will know that there’s a special thing going on between dads and their girls. I think the best quote I ever read to describe it was this one:
“Certain is it that there is no kind of affection so purely angelic as of a father to a daughter. In love to our wives there is desire; to our sons, ambition; but to our daughters there is something which there are no words to express.”
– Joseph Addison
So when I find out that my daughter was so miserable, a part of me curls up in the fetal position and cries too. But you want to know what made it worse? What made it even more upsetting? The source of her pain was … algebra. Algebra! Her first algebra. A person’s first exposure to algebra should be special. It should be life-defining. It should be a cherished memory that warms you on command. A polished jewel of contentment forever residing at the center of your soul. And yet here’s my daughter, crying for 2 hours, and it was because of algebra. And I wasn’t home.
Talk about two ways to break my heart. Unacceptable!
So I dug a little deeper. My wife told me that my daughter was doing question after question, getting them right, and crying that she didn’t get it. My wife, no slouch in the math department for sure, was explaining the process, but for some reason it wasn’t getting through. My daughter just kept insisting she didn’t get it, all the while getting questions correct. How does this make sense? In what universe can a child keep getting questions right and through tears insist she doesn’t understand? The answer is because she was just following orders. The old “Switch the side, switch the sign” gambit. Consider this question she was working on:
x + 3 = 7
x = 7 – 3
x = 4
Correct, right? And easy too? So why was she so miserable?
It’s because she had no idea why she was doing what she was doing, or what any of it meant, and certainly no way to tell if her answer was right. She was right by accident, and because she was following a bunch of rules. In short, she wasn’t doing any math at all. She was, for all intents and purposes (or for all “intensive purposes” if you’re one of those people who hears sayings but never sees them written down) a trained monkey repeating a task. And nobody wants that … except for maybe the monkey because they get a lot of rewards for stuff like that … but no human wants that. And my daughter is exceedingly human.
You see, here’s what she was taught (or at the very least, to give her teacher the benefit of the doubt, it’s what she thought she was taught): To get the variable alone you have to move the number to the other side. If it’s plus you do minus and if it’s times you do divide. If it’s minus you do plus and if it’s divide you do times. Ouch. So much wrong with this I don’t even know how to start. But I do know that it’s taught this way so often that I have students who think that’s what algebra is. And I know of one teacher who used to have her students repeat the mantra “Switch the side, switch the sign.” I used to ask those students what they do if it’s multiplication or division. They said that’s when you don’t switch the sign. Ooooookay then.
So here’s the thing. When students are taught “rules” for solving equations they are not learning math. They are learning algorithms. An algorithm is a sequence of steps you follow to complete a specific task. You don’t need to know why, and in fact the reason algorithms are so powerful and so common is because you don’t need to know why. Long division is an excellent example. Many of us remember how to use long division to get the answer to 97654 divided by 7. But how many of us know why it works? The algorithm was designed to turn humans into calculators so that mathematicians didn’t have to do the tedious work. In WW1 there were literally rooms full of people – called calculators – who would do repetitive tedious calculations assigned to them by codebreakers. The codebreakers knew why the calculations were required, but the volume of work to do it was so vast that if the breakers themselves were to do the work they’d never decode a single message. So calculators were invented. They were people. A lot of them. And they were good at algorithms. But they didn’t know any math. Of course nowadays we have little computers that do the same job, but the concept is the same. A computer doesn’t think – it only follows instructions. It is excellent at executing algorithms. BUT THAT ISN’T MATH!!!
Ok. Back to the algebra, and my daughter. Saturday morning we were sitting in the family room, still in our pajamas, and Phineas and Ferb had just ended. The time was right. I told her I was going to help her with algebra but first she needed to forget everything she’d learned thus far. She happily agreed and put the misery in some invisible incinerator. Ahhh. Square one. Then we had this conversation:
Me: “Imagine I split your class up into groups of 2. Pick a partner.”
Her: “Alyssa!” (this was meant to be obvious to me)
Me: “Ok, now every pair has to pick one person for the blue team and one for the red.” (blue is her favourite colour – I’m not a rookie)
Me: “Ok, we’re going to play a game. Blue team goes first. Here’s the game. Pick a number but not a hard one. Don’t tell red team what it is. Now your job is to give Alyssa one hint, and if she gets it right you both get a point. Otherwise nobody scores.” (yeah, lame game, I know – but there are points and a blue team so she’s right on board)
Her: “Ok. My hint is it’s my favourite number.” (I saw this coming a mile away, and had a plan)
Me: “Right, Ok. But here’s the thing. You want to be SURE Alyssa will get it right. What if she can’t remember what your favourite number is? You want to give her a clue that will work for sure. And no using your number in the clue!”
Her: “It’s my birthday.” (Ha! I saw that coming too)
Me: “What if Alyssa forgot your birthday?”
Her: “How could she? She’s coming to my party!”
Me: “Good point. But what if she thinks your birthday is on a different day than the party? After all it is. You want to be sure she’ll guess your number, so make the hint foolproof.”
Her: “Ok, I get it. My hint is my number is 5 less than 10.”
Me: “Awesome! Ok, I’m Alyssa. Is it 5?”
Her: “You knew that already because you know my favourite number.”
Me: “Good point. Ok, here, it’s red team’s turn. If you increase my number by 7 you get 12.”
Her: “Hey you can’t pick the same number as me!” (Success!!!!)
Me: “Yes I can I can pick any number I want. Ok your turn.”
Her: “If you cut my number in half you get 10” (ooooh, nice one)
Her: “Yes! Ok, give me one now!”
Me: “If you multiply my number by 2 and then add 1, you get 13.”
Me: “6? Why 6?”
Her: “Because 6 x 2 is 12 and 12 + 1 is 13.”
Me: “Nice! Ok, you go.”
Her: “If you add 67354 to my number you get 90543.”
Me: “Ummm, are you going to know if I got it right?”
Her: “No. But you always get it right so I want to know the answer.” (Love her – I always get it right? She needs to talk to my wife!)
Me: “How am I supposed to get it? Those numbers are huge!”
Her: “Just do 90543 minus 67354!”
Me: “Right. I knew that. Ok it’s 23189.” (I rock at doing subtraction in my head – blows her away every time – she checked with a calculator)
Her: “Yes. Nice one Daddy.”
This went on for a long time. She really liked the game. At some point she realized that I was not keeping score and she got mad at me. Then she realized that it would always be a tie so she said it was not a good points system. We spent some time coming up with a better points system. She came up with something. It was fairly convoluted and had to do with blue team’s ability to do an aerial cartwheel so I lost, but I’m comfortable with that.
Then I told her a story about a dude from a long time ago named al-Khwarizmi, who wrote a book called “Al-Kitāb al-mukhtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-jabr wa-l-muqābala“ (no, I don’t have the name of the book memorized – I always have to look it up – but I always know the al-Jabr part). I said the name of the book is a pain to say so a lot of people just called it al-Jabr. I told her that al-Khwarizmi’s book was all about ways to answer questions like the one in the game if you were not good enough to do it in your head. Take for example the clue
“If you increase my number by 7 you get 12”
al-K (that’s what his peeps called him I bet) would have said the clue slightly differently. He would have said
“Suppose thing, increased by 7 ducats, results in 12 ducats.” (take a moment to explain that ducats are kind of like dollars)
Then he would have said that you can solve it by reversing the increase, and conclude
“Therefore thing is 12 ducats reduced by 7 ducats, which is to say 5 ducats”
Then we did a few that way. I’d write “Thing, multiplied by 6, results in 18 ducats” and she’d write “Therefore thing is 18 divided by 6, which is to say 3 ducats.”
Now some people might not believe that you can ask and expect an 11-year old to use language like this, but I’ve never understood why people would think that. Speak to them this way and they will listen, understand, and respond in kind. It’s what we’re wired to do. It’s how we learn to communicate.
I should mention that at one point she asked me if al-K called his book al-Jabr because it sounds like algebra. I told her that algebra sounds like al-Jabr because of that book! That al-K invented algebra. She thought that was super cool but also wanted to know how I could know such a thing. She was amazed to find out that I studied some history in my life. Daddy points scored.
Ok. So this gets tedious right? My daughter agreed. It’s too much writing. So then I told her about a dude named Rene Descartes who really liked al-K’s methods, but was too lazy to write it all out that way. So he’d look at the sentence
“Suppose thing, increased by 7 ducats, results in 12 ducats.”
And he’d say for example that “thing” is too many letters to write, but it’s important since it’s the number we’re trying to get people to guess. So Descartes chose the minimum number of letters possible. One. I let her choose the letter. She chose “m”. She always chooses “m” when letter-choosing is the task at hand. Then I told her that “increased by” is a pain to write out also, and asked her what she thought Descartes would say instead. She wrote down “+”. Then I said what’s “results in”? She wrote “=”. And Voila! She had written
m + 7 = 12
Then without me saying anything else, she said “Oh, so then Descartes would write m = 12 – 7! Which is 5!”.
And honestly, with that the lesson was done. I gave her about 8 more equations to solve in the Descartes style, and she got them all. We never once discussed rules, and we never once switched a bloody sign.
And there were no tears.
Maybe I’ve rescued the algebra memory.
Thanks for reading,