“Algebra before Acne”

As I was again reading the Common Core Standards, I was struck by their introduction of variables in grade 6. Jim, I could not help but think of you, my old dear friend, and your wonderful command, “Algebra before acne.”

Kaput envisioned algebra and algebraic reasoning as fundamental mathematical ideas that should be taught from the very beginning. He believed that the great abstractions which make mathematics so powerful and so beautiful could and should be taught from the very beginning. He would not have been happy with today’s Standards though he helped write the original National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Standards. He would not have been happy to see the Common Core push variables down only a grade or two from their traditional place in the math curriculum. He would believe that we continue to silo variables and to make them difficult, very difficult, for so many kids. He would not understand why we do not apply technology to represent x.

Unlike Jim, most of us continue to think of variable as an abstract idea which Piaget decided required students to be in the Formal operational stage (the acne stage). No doubt, we have heard students ask the painful question, “What is x?” when they do get to “real” algebra in 8th grade, for which we likely has no succinct answer. And of course, math historians make the excuse that is took 800 years for the “unknown” of al Khwarizmi to become the variable of Descartes. So, we let it go, think Kaput a dreamer who would oversimplify this abstract idea to present it to even young kids. But we would be wrong. We would miss his genius and the real point. And what is more, we would miss a great opportunity to give all of our students interesting problems to solve.

We are so wedded, in the standard math curriculum, to dealing with and thinking about variables as continuous quantities that we do not recognized the concrete power and utter simplicity of dealing with variables as discrete quantities. Students have no problem with discrete quantities; after all arithmetic is all about discrete quantity. I did not recognize this profound intuition until a decade after Jim’s untimely death, when I started working on learning math using spreadsheets. Spreadsheets, born of the digital world, are a natural medium for dealing with discrete quantity. Variables are represented by tables of values, generally by a column or perhaps a row of discrete numbers. To operate on the variable is to operate on each number in turn. Functions are discrete and usually link one column to another. Indeed, in the application of math today in both STEM and business, spreadsheets are the primary quantitative vehicle, and discrete variables are the standard quantities. Spreadsheets are digital tools and as such are built to handle discrete variables and functions.

If we ask students to build a table of values from 1 to 10 on a spreadsheet, and label that column x, then “What is x?” It is simply the name of that column! It is a variable because it can take on different values, any of those values. And if we ask them to make a second column that adds 2 to the variable x, they will have no difficulty doing that, creating a function of x, labeling the second column f(x), a machine that adds 2 to every value of x. First graders can do this. We can teach algebra from the very beginning if we use discrete variables. Spreadsheets make it easy, and you can do it at any level. Jim Kaput was right, we can and we should teach algebra before acne, way before acne. Try it!