Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Most Important Word

What's the most important word in math?

That's a question I like to ask my students. I was inspired by this episode of The Adventures of Pete and Pete. It's called X=Why?. In it, Ellen Hickle asks a question of her math teacher which stumps the world and sends everything flying into chaos. I'd like to imagine that this question was asked in a fictional world in which there is no actual answer to this question. The show is full of whimsy and that works for me. I also love... well I'll let you watch the episode before I suggest.

There's also that joke floating around Facebook. I think it reads: "Dear Algebra, please stop trying to find your X. She's gone." It's a sad truth that students use humor to shield themselves from the frustrations and joys of learning. More on that some other time.

So what's the most important word in math, in my opinion? Take some time to consider and meet me below.

The most important word in math:


That is to say the verb "To Be." Like "I am," "he/she is," "they are" and all of those cojnugations.

Now that I've answered that question, what the hell does that mean exactly? The word "is" is so important that most folks wouldn't even think of it. It's so important that we take it completely for granted. Was it Hamlet who pondered "To be or not to be, that is the question?" What was he asking? Let's consider for a moment that he was asking one of the universe's most profound concerns.

What does that have to do with math? Let's start with the word "Equals." That's the word most analogous to "IS."

For instance, let's start with the thought that 12 eggs cost $3.00. A question most commonly asked might be "at this rate what is the cost of ONE egg?"

The way algebra works is pretty simple. Take the information you're given and use different symbols. If Twelve eggs are $3.00, we might translate that like so:

12X = 3

If you read from left to right, that's a very simple translation. Twelve(12) Eggs(x)are (=)$3.00(3). From there it is a matter of manipulation (moving things around with your hands) to find out the answer. I won't share the answer here. Figure it out yourself.

It occurs to me that algebra is often seen as much more difficult than it really is. Part of it is the element I mentioned above (manipulation) that students often refuse to learn. Instead of doing a little work on paper, they usually rely on their brains. That makes the practice much harder in my opinion. I once met a grown man at a Kinko's who asked a question like Ellen did in x=Why?: "Why should I have to learn that?" At the time I wasn't ready to answer him, but I think the answer is fairly profound.

We developed these skills to help us to find things that we don't know.

That's why to me the word "IS" is so amazingly important. Algebra exists to help us discover the things we don't know. The gifts of algebra are the toolset for discovering things that we haven't begun to understand. Those secrets may be as essential as the basics of existence.