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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 08/27/2012

No, algebra isn’t necessary — and yes, STEM is overrated

This was written by Roger C. Schank, a cognitive scientist, artificial intelligence theorist, and education reformer. He has taught at Stanford and Yale universities and is the John Evans Professor Emeritus of Computer Science, Psychology, and Education at Northwestern University. The former head of the Institute for the Learning Sciences, he is the author of “Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools.”

Schank wrote this in response to a recent post I published by University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham entitled, “Yes, algebra is necessary.” Willingham was himself writing in response to a New York Times op-ed, “Is Algebra Necessary?” by Andrew Hacker. Willingham’s piece started this way:

“When I first saw yesterday’s New York Times op-ed, I mistook it for a joke. The title, ‘Is algebra necessary?’, had the ring of Thurber’s classic essay, ‘Is sex necessary?’, a send-up of psychological sex manuals of the 1920s.”

By Roger C. Schank

Whenever I meet anyone who wants to talk about education, I immediately ask them to tell me the quadratic equation. Almost no one ever can. (Even the former chairman of the College Board doesn’t know it). Yet, we all seem to believe that everyone must learn algebra.


(Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
Why this religious zeal over algebra? It helps students learn how to think, people claim. Really? Are mathematicians the best thinkers you know? I know plenty of them who can’t handle their own lives very well.

Reasoning mathematically is a nice skill but one that is not relevant to most of life. We reason about many things: parenting, marriage, careers, finances, business, politics. Do we learn how to reason about these things by learning algebra? The idea is absurd.

Yet, we hear argument after argument about the need for more STEM education (pretending we don’t have lots of unemployed science PhDs). Everyone must study chemistry, memorize plant phylla and do lots of trigonometry.

The argument for algebra rests on the transfer from math to other areas of life, something that has never been proven despite the claims of people such as University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham.

The defenders of the existing system love mathematics because it is easy to test and there can be test prep courses and state-wide tests and national tests and tests comparing us to other countries, all signifying nothing.

It isn’t just mathematics that is the problem, of course. Why do we all learn to balance chemical equations or memorize homilies about U.S. history? Because back in 1892, the president of Harvard University designed curriculum and said that those subjects should be the basis for high school classes.

Any cognitive scientist worth his salt knows that it isn’t subjects like algebra or chemistry that matter. It is cognitive abilities that are important.

You can live a productive and happy life without knowing anything about macroeconomics or trigonometry but you can’t function very well at all if you can’t make an accurate prediction or describe situations, or diagnose a problem, or evaluate a situation, person or object. The ability to reason from evidence really matters in life, the names of famous scientists and their accomplishments do not.

We can teach people the skills they need if we allow them to choose what interests them and then teach them to predict, evaluate, diagnose, etc., within their area of interest. Teaching algebra and then hoping those skills will transfer to other areas of life is simply fantasy, a fantasy that makes our kids bored and miserable in school.

The average person never does abstract reasoning. If abstract reasoning was so important, we could teach courses in that.

We need to begin teaching people to reason well enough to make sensible political and life choices. This is a very important idea in a democracy.

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