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  • Ness Blackbird

Who Needs Algebra?

Updated: Sep 17

In high school (circa 1980), I was good at math. I learned all about points and slopes, though I found it boring. I proved geometric theories in tenth grade, which was more fun, though my handwriting was so bad my teacher kept marking me down for it. (I think he only knew what I had written because he knew I knew the right answers.)


In college, I took calculus. Boring again, unfortunately. I could never be a mathematician like my father. But he taught me what it’s good for. Higher math -- in the adult world -- has two purposes:

  1. It’s an art form, the purest expression of logic the human mind has yet created. It is beautiful, and useful because you can make a living as a professor. My dad loves to teach, and he loves to create new theorems, and discuss them with his homies.

  2. It’s used in science and engineering.

The purpose of school is to prepare our children to be good citizens and full participants in our modern society. So how much math do we need to teach them?


Arithmetic, of course: Numerical literacy. And it’s essential for citizens of a modern nation to understand percentages and basic statistics (to be able to talk about governmental policy), and exponents (without which we as a nation are helpless against problems such as pandemics -- if only we had done a better job on this one!).


We teach science for a slightly different reason; as with statistics, every citizen needs to understand the principles of science, so we can make informed decisions about public questions.


But we also teach science as an introduction to a variety of careers. Schools are democratizing institutions, which open up the possibilities of careers to students who might otherwise not consider a career in engineering or the sciences.


A high-school introduction to mathematics-related careers does not require algebra, nor do we need it as citizens. We don’t need trigonometry. We don’t need geometric proofs or calculus.


There is one more reason we teach mathematics to high school students: Young people need problem-solving skills, in every realm of life. As citizens, we need to be able to negotiate conflict, deal with realities of work, and we need to understand pure logic. We need to wrestle with difficult logical questions: doing this oils the mental gears and helps prepare us to make sense under stress.


Math is good for that -- at least, it was for me. But advanced math isn’t a popular subject, and a lot of students never really master it, even though they need it for the SAT.


So I propose we replace advanced math with basic computer programming -- coding literacy.

  • It’s more fun than math: you can make things happen on the computer, even write your own games.

  • It teaches the same problem-solving skills we learn from math.

  • It’s a valuable introduction to many contemporary careers which are much in demand: Not only software developer, but tester, product manager, UI designer and many more.

It remains only to demonstrate that basic programming is, in fact, more accessible and fun than advanced math.


That’s what Blackbird Code is here for.

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