Don’t give up on algebra; find a better way to teach it

A couple of weeks ago Herald columnist James McCusker wrote an article called “Are we teaching algebra to the wrong students?” As a former teacher, I would answer McCusker with my sincere belief that no, we are not teaching algebra to the wrong students; we just need to find a better way to teach them.

Just because algebra is a difficult subject known to induce emotional panic does not mean we as a society should give up on teaching advanced math. To give up on algebra would mean to give up on students and their capacity to learn. I passionately believe that all children are capable of learning, and there is no reason that a neurotypical adolescent cannot master algebra.

I think that the answer to the “algebra problem” is equipping parents and teachers with the tools they need to teach algebra in a way that makes sense, and to start teaching algebra to children as young as eight years old. If you think I am crazy, then you have never seen Hands on Equations, the brainchild of Dr. Henry Borenson.

I cannot talk about Hands on Equations without sounding like I am a paid spokesman for the company, (which I am not). I also can’t describe Hands on Equations without getting a bit weepy about it. I guess that’s further proof that algebra is fraught with emotion.

Hands on Equations is, quite simply, the way that I wish I had learned algebra. Instead of esoteric rules to memorize, Dr. Borenson has children move around pawns on a yellow balance, so that each algebra problem is solved with manipulatives. Children learn the laws of algebra as “legal moves” that will help them play the game more effectively.

I purchased the Hands on Equations home pack for my son last winter for $34.95. It includes 26 lessons, and so far he has completed 18 of them. We do about two Hands on Equations lessons a month, usually on the weekend accompanied by a bowl of ice cream. If your child can do third-grade math and handle checkers, he or she is ready for Hands on Equations.

Here are two examples of the level of problems my son is learning to solve:

• x + 12 = 2(-x)+ 6.

• Find three consecutive even numbers whose sum is double the third number, increased by 8.

The amazing thing about Hands on Equations is that it makes so much intuitive sense. Before you know it, you are looking at algebraic equations and imagining blue and white pawns moving around in your head. That’s a lot better than trying to remember some sort of rule that your algebra teacher wrote on the white board for you to memorize.

I am passionate about Hands on Equations because it is how I wish all children could learn algebra. Please let us not give up on teaching high school students how to do advanced math. Let’s just find a better way to teach them.

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