Miss! When will I ever use Algebra?

I am currently teaching Algebra to my junior students. Without fail, no matter if I am teaching students who struggle with maths or students who claim maths is their favourite subject, I am always asked the same question: “When will I ever use Algebra?”

Sometimes they phrase it differently. They’ll ask me what the purpose of learning certain Algebraic skills are. Or my personal favourite: “When will I ever use algebra in the real world?” I then have to check if we have slipped into a fantasy land which would mean I haven’t really needed to teach this pretend class all this time. It’s never the case, though.

Mathematics teachers sometimes struggle with how to answer these questions. I believe it’s quite straightforward. So straightforward, in fact, that there are multiple answers to the question! (Shocking, right? Usually in mathematics there’s only one solution! Har har.)

REASONS WHY ALGEBRA IS IMPORTANT / WHY WE SHOULD LEARN ALGEBRA

1. Algebra helps you understand Science.
Most science courses require you to have a basic understanding of algebra. If I had a dollar for the amount of times a student has said “oh, it’s like a formula in Science!?” I’d be a billionaire. Yes, formulas. Like algebra! It’s the same thing, silly!
2. Formulas are a part of every day life.
You’re using algebra without even realising it – and not just in Science class. When you drive a car and calculate distance, it’s a formula. When you are cooking and need to figure out how many times to double a recipe to feed everyone coming to your party, it’s a formula. Algebra is sneaky like that.
3. Algebra helps you make life decisions.
Which is the best cell phone plan? This can be solved by using simple algebra. It’s the text book example! Interest rates is another classic example – many people get fooled by their banks because they do not know simple algebra.
4. Algebra is a prerequisite for higher training.
Most employers and universities these days expect people to have completed some form of algebra (as well as most other forms of mathematics… usually for the reasons stated above.
5. Modern technology and careers use algebra.
Spreadsheets, data entry, video game design, programming, internet, mobile phones, satellites, and other modern careers rely heavily on the use of algebra.
6. Algebra helps you to problem solve.
Problem solving skills are an important part of our development. Using problem solving skills trains your brain to think in a logical way. Simply put, it helps to make your brain stronger and you’re always going to need to use your brain.
7. It’s fun!
Alright, so perhaps this last one is me and other mathematical people. That doesn’t stop me from saying it to my students!

What do you tell your students when they ask you, “Why do we have to learn Algebra?” What did your teachers tell you when you were in school?

6 thoughts on “Miss! When will I ever use Algebra?”

1. Fiona Thomas says:

Doing algebra, successfully, shows that you can think in an orderly systematic manner to solve a problem. Starting an algebra problem, even though you aren’t quite sure where you are heading, applying what you know in that systematic manner, shows a willingness to try, an open minded attitude, resilience and persistence. If you can follow a simple set of rules in algebra then you can probably convince someone that you can follow their instructions about how to fix the car, wire the house, bake the cake, operate the machine or apply the hair dye. Algebra is a medium by which you can demonstrate skills and attitudes which can be applied to a wide range of subjects and professions. Algebra isn’t about the destination, it is about the journey.

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• caitlinclock says:

Absolutely! A great explanation. I’m sure your students are satisfied when you are able to discuss the importance of algebra with them. I love that last line. Onward we go!

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2. Andy Kai Fong says:

Caitlin and Fiona – i understand your rationale for justifying “why algebra?” – my question would be, do you use the contexts you describe – driving, cooking, gaming and all manner of problem solving as the contexts for Ss learning algebraic concepts? Is algebra wrapped in real-world contexts for the Ss or are they asked to find those applications “later”…..I assume there are a multitude of contexts through which Ss could learn the concepts, from what you describe – that might stop them from asking the question to begin with?

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• Caitlin Clock says:

Hi Andy. Of course! We try to use real-world contexts in class wherever possible. Sometimes when we are first teaching these very basic algebraic skills it is not as easy to do this.

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3. Richard Wells says:

Nice post. Because I agree with all your points, it will be great soon when schools like ours have shut down all the departments and Algebra is only experienced in real contexts (like the ones you describe) within the projects they’re working on. The learning challenge is only to make them conscious of the Algebra they’re using.

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• Caitlin Clock says:

Absolutely. I saw an article the other day about a school that was so proud of themselves by “taking away algebra” from its curriculum and only using “maths from the real world.” I died a little bit inside. So many people fail to realise that algebra has so many real-world contexts where they just aren’t making the connection.

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