Is Algebra too Easy?

By Tracey Pilone
March 9, 2009 | Comments: 3

There are math-phobes everywhere that are just shaking their heads, but bear with me. I just started tutoring a geometry student, and one of the first questions I asked him was how he did in Algebra. He said it was a piece of cake and now he's hitting a wall in geometry. Why? Because sometimes Algebra can be too easy.

You see it all the time - people skip to the end of the problem and they don't know how they got the right answer. Typical math teaching follows a pattern - introduce the concept, explain the concept, show a simple example and then get students to solve.

Head First books don't do that. And one of the big reasons that they don't is because when you follow that pattern, the simple example part can be a motivation killer. The problem is that it's really easy to SEE the answer and not understand it.

For example:

X + 2 = 5
X is 3

No steps, no explanations, but if you have experience with your fingers many students know it's 3. Now, if you're just starting Algebra, how does it help for you to just know the answer is 3? You haven't learned any Algebra at all. You used inverse operations and you maintained equality, but do you know that or what it's called or how to do that again?

It's a shame, because using simple examples is really a great way to help people who are scared of math to get easily into the material, but it can derail them in the long run. You end depriving people of a true learning experience because they can skip the process, and the process is what Algebra is all about. The numerical answer they get without understanding or context isn't really an answer at all.

Here's what Head First has done. If you look at Head First Algebra, in Chapter 1, we do have a couple of pretty intuitive equations to start, but the rest of the book - lots of decimals and fractions. You'll see a lot of x = 3.445. Why? Because you can't just look at 160 + 410g = 1330 and figure out what g represents. You have to work through the equation, using the rules, to figure out the solution. The end result? You have to learn the steps because you can't get the answer without them. No skipping- ha!

Here's another reason we stayed away from simple, whole numbers when we developed the book. The problems in Head First Algebra deal with things like car payments, road trip costs, and projectile motion. These situations can't generally be summed up in whole numbers, so we didn't. The reality of dealing with the world forces some messy situations, and we've embraced it.

Working with Head First Algebra gets you two advantages - you learn to work with real world numbers and real world situations, and doing that means that you have to learn the Algebra. Learning the skills and the concepts? That's Head First.

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even though I generally suck at maths I find Algebra pretty easy.

actually spotted a mistake the teacher made one time

The world is made up of two kinds of people: those that find algebra intuitive (not me) and those that find geometry intuitive (me). Never fails. Alas, being algebra intuitive is a greater asset for higher maths topology, analysis and the like (as typically taught). Einstein said he world out the Special Theory geometrically, but eventually had to produce the algebra.

When I was in 6th grade I did Algebra Topics, which is computer program on the computer which teaches you how to do algebra. I didn't like how they taught, because they just don't explain it clearly. But now that I am in 7th grade and actually have a real person teaching me it is really easy! I hope I don't hit a wall once I get into Geometry! To be truthful, I want to skip Algebra and just go straight into Geometry, unfortunately it is already way into the 2nd semester and I cannot change my classes anymore.

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