Whitefield Academy Blog
I Will Never Use Algebra in Real Life
“I will never use this in real life,” says almost every exasperated junior high Algebra student. The hours of solving algebra problems. The random letters. The complex terminology: factors, commutative, quadratic and rooster form. The bizarre word problems about how long it takes Superman and Iron Man to fly and crash into each other from 100 miles away given different speeds and different starting times. All of these add to a student’s perspective that the information they are learning in my class is irrelevant to their everyday life. So how do I convince a junior high student just how relevant algebra is?
The secret and genius behind algebra is best explained through its own history. Algebra (الجبر, al-jabr) means “the reunion of broken parts.” The word comes to us from 9th century Persian mathematician, Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, from his book The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing. The study of algebra evolved over several stages into the modern symbolic algebra we see today. Algebraic problems were first treated as full sentences void of the symbolic x’s and y’s currently used. For example, 7x +1 = 22 would have been stated, “Seven times the thing plus one is twenty two.” By putting this algebraic equation into an English sentence we move from math-oriented thinking to logic-oriented thinking. Algebra, I believe, is better looked at as an exercise in logic not necessarily in math. We don’t intuitively recognize it to be this way because we developed our own formal logic in the west independent of algebra and limited algebra to strictly mathematical problem-solving.
An eighth grader recently told me that she didn’t need algebra in the real world because she was going to operate a dance studio when she grew up. She claimed that teaching dance only required an eight count therefore she needed no advanced math. In one simple question I was able to show that she would have to think algebraically.
“How are you going to make money?”
For her to answer this question, she would have to calculate how much to charge each student and how many students she would need to cover costs as well as to turn a profit. She would also need to figure out how many classes to have, when to be open, and how to arrange those classes. All of this requires algebra.
We are not logical thinkers by nature. This is a faculty we must develop. Most of life’s decision-making is, in fact, algebraic. From balancing our finances, calculating taxes, and scheduling our family’s daily activities to planning vacations or mowing the lawn (How much of your lawn can you mow on one gas tank?), we use algebra. We think we can mow the lawn on a half a tank of gas, but can we really? Often we make decisions we feel are right and then we often prove ourselves wrong. By looking at algebra as a discipline in logic we immediately see its application and usefulness in our everyday life. The problems we interact with are, in fact, solvable. When we don’t develop and value what algebra brings to us, we make emotional decisions.
Algebra shows us that much of the world is deterministic and not arbitrary. God is a God of order therefore we should expect to find consistency and repeatability in nature. When we choose to live according to His law, we are essentially admitting that He is Creator God and aligning ourselves with how His creation works. As we live submerged in God’s law, we can have success (Joshua 1:8). Algebra is a beautiful window into God’s consistency and order and is not only seen but used in every day of “real life.”