The Reflective Educator

Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

Menu Close

Obama to students: You will need algebra

In his commencement speech ( story shared by @monsoon0 ) to a Memphis graduating class, President Obama said:

Through education, you can also better yourselves in other ways. You learn how to learn – how to think critically and find solutions to unexpected challenges. I remember we used to ask our teachers, “When am I going to need algebra?” Well, you may not have to solve for x to get a good job or be a good parent. That’s true. But you will need to think through tough problems. You will need to think on your feet. So, math teachers, you can tell your students that the President says they need algebra.

I really don’t get how solving for x in 3x + 17 = 5x + 2 will "help students think through tough problems [in life]" and "think on their feet." I see algebra skills as useful, but not out of context of the types of problems they help us solve. Instead of students learning an algorithm for which almost none of our students will ever get to see a real application; what if we taught students areas of mathematics which had direct application in their lives, and which actually helped them think?

I think that we do need some people who learn algebra in a really deep way, but the type of algebra that people use in their day to day lives is fairly simple, and doesn’t take very long to teach, especially if students see the value in what they are learning. Too long people have learned math because someone said they should. 

Well Mr. President, I don’t think that telling my students that just because you think it is useful will mean they will want to learn it. I’m going to keep focusing on presenting the mathematics I teach in the context of the lives of my students instead, thank you.