Algebra - More complex than I thought!

Updated: Mar 11, 2019

Update: This post has been edited for clarity (hopefully enough, but let me know if it needs more!) and a quick note that although I and my school have come to a conclusion for our students, each teacher and/or school needs to think through the information provided here, dependent on their students' desired outcomes.

It is also important to keep in mind the information NOT here, for example how will your students cope after school based on your decisions?

For many years, students have been sitting three level-3 Mathematics exams in one 3-hour period. I wanted to inquire into how that was working for people, why it was done, and if it still needed to happen.

This year, I have made the decision as teacher-in-charge of level 3 Mathematics with Calculus, in consultation with my head of department, to drop the Algebra achievement standard. This means no more formal end-of-year exam of exact values (like surds and other irrationals), or polynomial division, or L3 algebra-specific proofs, or about complex numbers. Of course, I'll still teach them some of this because I absolutely love the topic!

So why did I choose to get rid of Algebra? Because of stress.

The students at the end of the year had to learn and remember a whole lot of techniques to pass the three exams. These three exams are to be sat in a single three hour period.

Just take a moment to imagine what that is like.

You've just learned three different topics over 18 weeks. You barely remember anything from the first topic, and bits from the second. Then there was that four week holiday. And an intense four weeks of learning algebra. On top of that, you're probably sitting all the Physics exams, Chemistry exams, and a bunch of others. Not only that, but you still have your social life, work, and co-curriculars.

How would you handle all that? I know I'd struggle!

One of my goals is to ensure my students enjoy their time at school learning their subjects. Of course, they're also there to get grades to gain University Entrance. Both of these reasons lead me to my decision to drop algebra.

With one less Achievement Standard, that means less stress during study period. It also means more time to focus on understanding the content deeply, learning different strategies and patterns to solve problems.

It also means more students gaining University Entrance. That's right - even though I am offering less credits, students will get more credits.

Now for my justification to all those other Calculus teachers out there.

Many students study Engineering at university. Not a huge number from our school, but enough. It's common knowledge amongst New Zealand calculus teachers that Engineering requires all three external exams (integration, differentiation, and algebra). It makes sense. Engineering does use all three topics. But do students need the prior knowledge gain entry into the Engineering programmes?

I wasn't so sure. I have taught Engineering labs at University and have friends who studied Engineering. I had an inkling that the common knowledge was, in fact, wrong. So I did what any reasonable human would do when they want to know something - I asked.

I got in touch with enrolment personnel from every tertiary organization that has an Engineering degree or diploma, and I just asked them. Now I know for sure what is required and what isn't. Although, some of it is a bit messy! Below is my results and communications from the research (scroll the page to the right to view the communication). (Click here to open the Google Sheet to a new tab!)

Calculus teachers have been preparing their students for a stressful exam period based on the false idea that all three exams are required for their students to become engineers. I now have the proof that this is not quite right.

Sure, two of the universities require all the papers for guaranteed entry into their main engineering program. But that's not the only way to get into the programmes.

I am also working on getting the numbers of students who meet the guaranteed entry requirements versus those that are individually assessed into the programmes.

That leaves us with all the rest of the tertiary education providers. None of them require algebra, but they do recommend integration and differentiation.

Edit: Some tertiary providers do strongly recommend all three to give their students the prior knowledge to succeed.

And so, I believe we have made the correct decision to pull algebra from our school's Calculus course. Yes it is important to learn about, and I will be teaching my students the basic principles of Level 3 algebra. But no, I am not going to teach them an entire unit at the expense of their mental well-being and their near-future.

To be clear, I am not saying that all schools should do this. Just asking Calculus teachers and students to look through the information I have gathered and make a fully informed decision about their work. Edit: I'm not saying all the information is here. Keep asking questions and don't just assume that if everyone knows something it must be right!

Just because something is common knowledge does not mean it is factually correct!

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