The Importance of Algebra for Everyone


Tricia Donovan
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Massachusetts ABE Math Initiative Coordinator, World Education, Boston
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

Tricia Donovan’s article, “The Importance of Algebra for Everyone,” discusses how algebraic thinking can be taught to ABE, Pre-GED, and ESOL students. The article summarizes the importance of numeracy for success in college and as citizens in the 21st century. Since the study of algebra is important for success in college algebra classes, adult education teachers must make algebra instruction available for all ABE students; not just the mathematically gifted.

The article discusses the key ideas in algebra: equality, function and generalization. She shows how the roots of these ideas can be found in basic mathematics, but our lower level ABE students are not exposed to them. To address their lack of understanding, ABLE students must be introduced to algebraic thinking at the earliest math levels. The article illustrates this through a method for helping ABE students develop algebraic thinking by rewriting basic equations so students can search on both sides of the equation..

This article is especially useful for numeracy teachers. The article offers a practical technique for teachers to modify their instruction to help their students develop algebraic understanding at the lowest mathematical levels. The article includes a list of student materials which is especially helpful for teachers. Teachers reading this article will be motivated to use the techniques in their classroom.

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What the experts say

This resource will be of value to instructors, researchers, and administrators of adult education because it changes the idea that algebraic thinking is something sacred for higher-level learners. It fosters the idea that mathematical logic and problem solving requires instructors to explain mathematics as the ability of thought rather than the ability to know discrete facts. By teaching numeracy skills early on by building on ideas that learners already know, instructors will not only create individuals that can do algebraic thinking, they will be able to motivate learners to enjoy and want to learn mathematics. After all, a learners’ opinion of how successful they are in mathematics affects their motivation toward mathematics.

Developing algebraic thinking is a very important concept for adult practitioners to understand. This article was very informative and also provided wonderful examples of developing algebraic thinking with basic math problems. The article then demonstrated how to scaffold this understanding for algebra problems later. This will help practitioners in the ABE level see the importance of developing algebra thinking early. The concepts of generalizations and equality are grounded in the research by Driscoll and Knuth. The segment on the equal sign (which is another misconception for many adult learners) was particularly enjoyable. The author gave very clear examples of how to foster a better understanding of balance versus an answer when students see an equal sign. The article even provided some math history on where the equal sign came from.

This article could potentially facilitate a starting point for further research in the understanding of numeracy development in low-level learners. On the other hand, it may simply change the way an instructor thinks about introducing algebraic concepts. The quasi-experiment done by the ABE instructor, Marilyn Moses, is one of the most significant features of this article. It stimulated discussion within the class and promoted a change in the way low-level learners developed their thoughts about algebra. This is important because most low-level math classrooms focus more on the algorithm of arithmetic than seeking for a deeper meaning.

In closing, the quote “the roots of algebra are situated in ‘lower level’ mathematics” clearly is the purpose of this article. If practitioners can see the relevance of changing their practice to incorporate algebraic thinking, their students will be better prepared for higher level mathematics.

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