July 3, 2020

Algebra… what is the point?


As a maths teacher I’ve been questioned countless times why algebra is taught and where it will be used in real life.  Writing an article about this topic might mean that I can answer this question for the last time today and in future refer students to this blog.  I would rather repeatedly explain the same maths topic, than to repeatedly justify the purpose of algebra.

Because you are not writing down equations with letters in real life, does not mean you are not using algebra.  At an early age you were taught algebra, but instead of letters, placeholders were used. (E.g. + 3 = 10)  Algebra allows us to use maths rules to find an unknown. 

If you decide on a career in mathematics, science, engineering, medicine and economics, you will use more advanced algebra skills.  Learning algebra helps to develop you critical thinking skills.  That includes problem solving, logic, patterns, decision making and reasoning.  All these skills are very useful in real life and can be used in any career. 

To solve a problem in algebra, you follow the following steps:

  • Identify the problem
  • Consider the variables
  • Develop a plan
  • Implement the plan
  • Evaluate the results

You can use these steps to solve any problem in real life.  Algebra trains your brain to solve problems.

Algebra can help you to make informed decisions.  For example, I use algebra to identify the best mortgage.  When a mortgage advisor gives you information about various mortgages, with different interest rates and different fees, you can use algebra to identify the best deal.  Banks know the majority of people will choose the mortgage with the lowest interest rate and use this to their advantage.  Your algebra knowledge can help you to save money by choosing better loans and mobile phone contracts.

Algebra can also help you to calculate how much of something you can buy at a given price.  Algebra is part of budgeting and finance.

One algebra topic is solving equations.  This has many uses in real life.  One example is if to calculate the price of an item that you’ve purchased.  I you know you purchased 5 bananas and a melon (@90p) and the total cost was £3.40.  You can then form and solve an equation to find the cost of one banana (5b + 90 = 340).

Solving simultaneous equations is another algebra topic that you may use in life.  You will be able to calculate the value of 2 unknowns using this skill.  For example, one day you went to the cinema and purchased 2 adult tickets and 1 child ticket at a total cost of £14.50.  On another day you purchased 1 adult ticket and 3 child tickets at a total cost of £16.00.  By solving the simultaneous equation, you will be able to calculate the price of an adult ticket and the price of a child ticket.

Another very useful algebraic topic is substitution.  Substitution means to replace letters with numbers.  This skill is used in all walks of life.  You may be baking in the kitchen and find that the recipe uses degrees Fahrenheit and your oven uses degrees Celsius.   Knowing how to substitute will help you to use the formula [  ] to convert °F to °C.  Substitution is also used by astronauts doing much more complicated calculations.

But if you’ve read up to this point and you are still not convinced that algebra will help you in real life, there is another reason to learn algebra.  Sometimes we need to use something as a steppingstone.  You might be of the opinion that you may never step on that stone again, but it had a purpose. 

Algebra forms 30% of the current GCSE maths qualification.  It is now compulsory for students to stay in education until the age of 18.  This means most students go to colleges and if you have not passed your GCSE maths exam with a minimum grade 4, you need to retake GCSE maths at college. To save yourself time and aggravation, learn algebra now and you may never have to write down the equations with the letters again.  But I am confident that you will gain many skills along the way that you will use in real life, even without realising it.