How to teach a 14 year old girl algebra?
June 26, 2005 5:00 PM   Subscribe

I need to teach a 14 year old girl algebra. How do I make it something that she actually wants to learn?

And where can I find related free resources on the web? What's the most effective way to go about this?
posted by orthogonality to Education (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
How do I make it something that she actually wants to learn?

teach it in a context that she'll actually care about and demonstrates how she could actually use it in her life.

there was a link on fark (i think) a long time ago about a prison school where the teacher would teach math/arithmetic to inmates by using drugs as his basis for examples. "if i bought a kilo of coke for $500, and i want to make $1000 selling it on the streets, what's the lowest price i could sell each gram for?" math became appealing to the inmates because they realized how they could actually use it in their (criminal) lives, but the state didn't look too favorably on this practice.

so find something she likes, and try to incorporate it in your lessons as much as possible. instead of just being given 100x=2500 and solving for x, make a word-problem example out of it that appeals to her everyday life.
posted by Ziggy Zaga at 6:02 PM on June 26, 2005

sorry for the double post, but i think this is the article about the prison school i had in mind, if you're curious.
posted by Ziggy Zaga at 6:06 PM on June 26, 2005

You could try and tell her how much 'fun' it is, but she will probably see through it. Much popularization of math is lame.

Tell her that if she wants to make money then knowing some math makes it much, much easier. Perhaps talking about interest rates as a start.

Try and find out her other interests and fit it in there, if she's into sports then you could try some basic velocity calculations, if she's into music the talk about frequencies and doppler shifts.

You can also tell her that math helps you understand the world and without math you will never really have a good understanding of the world.

Also, be honest and say that learning things is hard. Our brains don't always love it, but it is worth it and that to get what you want in life you will have to do things that you don't like doing sometimes.
posted by sien at 6:49 PM on June 26, 2005

I asked a math instructing question earlier and received a few helpful answers.
posted by glibhamdreck at 7:07 PM on June 26, 2005

this thread has some good advice in general on how to make math more accessible. (As I said there, math became more interesting to me once I really got that it describes the world, rather than being some random, useless bunch of symbols you have to memorize to please the irrational gods of Required Credits or whatever.)
posted by mdn at 7:07 PM on June 26, 2005

If anyone's still surfing this thread, I'd love a math book recommendation that focuses on everyday applications of algebra, with a little humor thrown in...
posted by craniac at 7:21 PM on June 26, 2005

My parents always explained it to me as the dues you pay to join the club. You get a good grade in algebra, then maybe you get to go to college, then you get a good job. So at least that way I felt like I was working toward something worthwhile. The arguments for doing math for math's sake just never made sense to me. Math was always a lot of little puzzles, and I always found puzzles, riddles, mind teasers, etc. to be intelligent distractions. Play a video game or watch a movie if you want to waste time. But I suppose some get their kicks from folding paper in half 12 times.
posted by banished at 7:22 PM on June 26, 2005

I'd go with the "this will make life much easier, and it's not as bad as it looks" approach. Be humorous, and let her know what things will be good for in her future.

Being nice and fun to be around will also motivate her.

I studied humanities, but I still use algebra in my daily life.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:25 PM on June 26, 2005

What appealed to me about algebra was that it was more than just math, it was detective work. Sure, there's lots of numbers and functions involved, but that stuff you can just memorize or do by rote. The real work of algebra is learning how to ask yourself, "What do I know? What do I want to know? What do I need to find out so I can get from what I do know to what I want to know? What do I think I don't know, but really I can figure out from what I know?" and so on. That still might not appeal to a 14-year-old, but it might help to point out that algebra helps you build skills relevant to more than just math, or even school.
posted by MonkeyMeat at 7:41 PM on June 26, 2005

The easiest introduction to algebra, I've found, is to actually build a "machine." It's just two boxes with a slot -- an In slot and an Out slot. She puts a number in, a different number comes out. She tries to guess what the "machine" is doing to the number. At first, she'll use language like "it's timesing it times two and adding three." Eventually, she can make a transition to "2x + 3."

You can give her all sorts of tools for guessing what the instructions inside the machine are. She can plot the In vs. Out on a graph; she can write out a table. Eventually she'll become good at guessing, and fluent with the language of formulas (one of the rough transitions at this point is that x does not mean multiplying but, instead, the number in question.)

Then you have two machines. The question becomes not "what is inside the machines," but "what one number can you put in both that will make them both say the same thing?" Voila! 2x+3=x+4!

There's any number of directions that such an approach can take. For one thing, guessing what is inside the "machine" is, in simple form, much like what Newton did in guessing what mechanism was governing planetary motion. Thus there are science links. And you can make the formulae ever more complex.

I have found that this sort of pure inquiry is actually more interesting to students than you-could-use-this-if-you-were-an-accountant sort of career guidance. It is interesting -- algebra is a very compact, beautiful, powerful mode of inquiry, and it should be taught as such.
posted by argybarg at 8:12 PM on June 26, 2005 [1 favorite]

Remind her that Algebra is a frontline in the fight for civil rights.
Bob Moses' work with the Algebra Project specifically deals in the idea that algebra is the "gatekeeper"- you get good algebra instruction and you have a greater chance of being successful in America. Moses' focus is on making sure poor, urban students and rural students receive this quality algebra instruction.

Many of Moses' techniques require what a lot of people are suggesting-- ground her mathematical experiences in some kind of knowledge that with be real and applicable to her- make sure it is in context for her:

"As the first step in the process, students experience an event, such as a train ride or a field trip to several different places. Students then create a model or pictures of the event and write about it in an informal and creative manner. The language used to describe the event is then formalized so that it accurately depicts the activity. Finally, students develop a symbolic representation of the event using mathematical concepts."
From here.
posted by oflinkey at 9:43 PM on June 26, 2005 [1 favorite]

Take her out of the public school system where her desire to learn is gradually being beaten out of her. (It's probably too late for this.) Otherwise, I don't think you can make an uninterested kid suddenly interested. The best you can do is try to teach it in a clear and straightforward manner, and hope she grows to appreciate it, but that won't necessarily happen.
posted by knave at 9:44 PM on June 26, 2005

When I was 14, I quite enjoyed John Allen Paulos's math books (Innumeracy, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper)--but I was quite a geek as a fourteen-year-old.

There are some books of logic problems for kids that have problems designed to introduce you to basic algebraic concepts-- I think I read the "Merlin Book of Logic Puzzles" a little younger than that age, and it has some algebra in it.
posted by Jeanne at 10:14 PM on June 26, 2005

I feel kind of stupid for the platitude, but I think to be most effective you need to base it on her a little. What's her favorite thing, design some problems around that. Also, demonstrate how algebra relates to that thing.
posted by Chuckles at 10:55 PM on June 26, 2005

When I took Algebra, it was so, so hard for a language oriented kid like me with a totally disinterested-in-making-it-accessible teacher. HOW she learns is just as important as the way it's presented. For me to learn math, I needed to have the barebones explained and worked with before you started shoving loads of wordproblems in my face. I needed to be able to write things down and do them along with the teacher, not just have symbols written on a board, take notes, and somehow magically spit it all back. Why she doesn't understand is important, and unfortunately, I don't have any other advice other than to be sure you address that (from my 14 year old self, who hated math with a passion).
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:34 AM on June 27, 2005

Me too, Medieval Maven. So frustrating to not understand the logic and have no-one explain it in any other way than to point to the dumb example.

Orthogonality, I resented the wasted time I put into algebra until I saw the play "Arcadia" by Tom Stoppard. If the 14 year old is language-oriented, try to find more intellectual works that demonstrate what the algebra actually means/does. (How does the Great Books program teach algebra...anyone know?) Otherwise, it's seemingly endless manipulation of numbers for no concievable reason.
posted by desuetude at 6:16 AM on June 27, 2005

You know, the quality that all my great teachers shared - the math teachers especially - was that they really got excited about their subject.

I'm suspecting that might not be how it is with you and math. Can you find someone like that to teach the 14 year old, then?
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:05 PM on June 27, 2005

ikkyu2 writes "I'm suspecting that might not be how it is with you and math. Can you find someone like that to teach the 14 year old, then?"

Oh, I'm excited enough about math, definitely see its value, and use it to some degree as a programmer. And while I'm not great at math, I managed -- without any cramming -- a 700 on the math SAT many many years ago (before the scores were adjusted up in the nineties). The other option is tutoring from her current math teacher, who is undoubtedly more qualified than I am, but the 14 year old to put it gently, rather intensely dislikes the teacher's pedagogy.
posted by orthogonality at 1:54 PM on June 27, 2005

I'm excited enough about math

I think if you can convey this, you win. 14 year olds don't care about practical value for their future IRS returns; they want excitement and fun.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:45 PM on June 28, 2005

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