Contrary to what many students may believe, algebra is the foundation of critical thinking and problem solving skills used in everyday life. It isn’t just about numbers and letters — algebra is about recognizing patterns, managing finances and caring for a home. Here’s why teaching algebra is so essential for helping students effectively navigate both their personal and professional lives.
Why Teaching Algebra Matters
Algebra forms the basis for advanced studies in an array of fields. These include mathematics, science, engineering, medicine and economics, according to Wonderopolis, a digital learning website.
“Algebra is the study of mathematical symbols and the rules for manipulating those symbols.”
In other words, algebra is the point at which letters are involved in math to answer real-world problems. It hasn’t always involved letters, however, and a broader understanding of algebra can make it more applicable to daily life.
So where did algebra start? Many people are surprised to learn that symbols weren’t present in algebra until the 15th century, when letters arose during the invention of the printing press. This was more than 2500 years after algebra was first invented in ancient Babylon, according to Whizz Education. This shows that algebra has its roots at the beginning of civilization, and that it has been necessary for survival and advancement.
“Algebra is better thought of as a language for describing mathematical ideas. It is through algebra that we can model different phenomena and make sense of the world around us,” adds the team at Whizz Education.
Learning how algebra works isn’t just about getting high grades on math tests. Rather, it’s about developing reasoning and problem-solving skills that will help young students navigate daily life.
Academic and Professional Success
Algebra is the foundational key to success in higher-level mathematics, says Matt Larson, Ph.D., past president of the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics. “Algebra is critically important because it is often viewed as a gatekeeper to higher-level mathematics and it’s a required course for virtually every postsecondary school program,” he explains.
Students who fail to master algebra in their early years often struggle with math throughout middle and high school. In turn, this can make them unprepared for the workforce or college, creating the need for additional education or training.
From a specific academic and professional standpoint, algebra is essential for mastering statistics and calculus. As research analyst Issac Demme points out, these concepts cannot be mastered without a fundamental understanding of algebra. Moreover, statistics and calculus are needed for a variety of careers across business, marketing, politics, social sciences and healthcare. Any student interested in these fields should understand that paying attention in class now will serve them later on down the road.
In fact, math educator Deb Russell says algebra is essential for helping students succeed in the workforce, regardless of the job they pursue.
“Along with developing critical thinking, specifically logic, patterns, problem-solving, deductive and inductive reasoning, understanding the core concepts of algebra can help individuals better handle complex problems involving numbers, especially as they enter the workplace where real life scenarios of unknown variables related to expenses and profits require employees to use algebraic equations to determine the missing factors,” she explains.
Learning about how they’ll use algebra in the near future may make it easier for students to realize its importance. Personal finance is the most relevant areas of life that algebra applies to.
For one, algebra provides the essential foundation for navigating business problems and financial dilemmas. According to Kathryn White at Sciencing.com, the ability to determine the situations that call for specific formulations and concepts is important for solving common real life problems. Figuring out how to pay off a debt, for example, requires algebraic forecasting and trajectory mapping.
Aside from navigating challenges, algebra is needed simply to manage finances and pay bills in a responsible manner. One of the simplest but most crucial examples is balancing a checkbook, writes Jennie Kroeger at Florida State. “Being able to project, categorize, and estimate expenditures require the ability to use some of the basic tenets of algebra and statistical analysis,” she explains.
Another example comes from Nicole Acevedo at AGradeAhead.com, who uses the instance of buying eggs to demonstrate just how often algebra is used when purchasing everyday items. She poses a situation in which eggs cost $1.30, and the individual has $5 to spend.
“In your mind, you will divide the total dollar amount by the cost of eggs to come up with an answer. Algebra, though, teaches you to understand that you cannot go over five dollars using the concept of inequalities,” she writes.
Algebra Matters for House and Home
Algebra is an essential component in the planning, creation and management of house and home. Consider the role of a contractor building a new home, for example. As Ruth Christensen at Imagine Learning points out, construction and remodeling are areas that rely heavily on mathematics on a daily basis.
“To create something of lasting value out of raw materials requires creativity, the right set of tools, and a broad range of mathematics,” she writes.
Algebra is just one of many mathematical skills required for construction. And, having the ability to apply algebraic thinking to home improvement can boost a person’s sense of self-reliance and confidence, all while saving money, says Christensen.
Similarly, decorating is another area that makes use of algebra. Thinking about how much paint is needed to cover a space, or whether couch will fit through the doorway, are just a few examples of using algebra in decorating, writes Justin Smith at Mathnasium.
Jill Kokemuller at educational resource The Classroom agrees with the important role of math in home improvement and decorating.
“When you buy paint or carpeting, you need to use math to figure out the area the paint or carpeting will cover so you know how much to purchase to cover your walls or floor. Anytime you need to hang a picture or fit a new piece of furniture into a room, you use math,” she explains.
Without algebra, buying, decorating or building a home would all be extremely difficult — if not impossible. But that’s not the only aspect of home ownership that algebra can be used for. It’s also key in caring for automobiles, bicycles, and other modes of transportation.
Engineer Christopher Wanamaker explains how an algebraic equation can be useful for deciphering how much coolant to put in a car, for example. Wanamaker knew that cars should maintain a coolant mixture ratio of around 50 percent water and 50 percent antifreeze. His available coolant mixture had a ratio of 70 percent antifreeze to 30 percent water. Instead of guessing, Wanamaker used an algebraic equation to find exactly how much water to add to obtain the proper ratio that wouldn’t harm his car.