Mayor Digong Duterte made another outrageous statement last December, declaring that should he become president, he would remove algebra, trigonometry and calculus from high school and replace these with business math and statistics. He noted that a lot of Filipinos (himself included) suffered from Math anxiety trying to learn “unnecessary numbers and signs” that did not serve any practical purpose. He thinks business math would be more useful as people do not get asked about sines and cosines when they go job hunting.
Do I agree or disagree? Well, both.
First, let me give a bit of a background so you understand where I’m coming from. I did not always find Math easy. I struggled with word problems in elementary and had only passable grades in my freshman year of high school. I had similar struggles entering my second year of high school and I was so desperate that I called a friend of mine from another school to help me out with my algebra homework because I could make neither head nor tails of it. My friend, Arthur Brian Yap (who later became my co-teacher at Davao Christian High School and is now the school president), graciously walked me through the solutions and explained them over the telephone. The clarity of his explanations seemed to unlock something in my mind and ever since that time, math problems transformed from burdensome tasks I detested into captivating puzzles I willingly took on. I went from a nobody to someone who represented the school in math contests.
In junior year, one of my best friends from elementary, Anthony Montecillo, came back to my high school (he had gone to Manila for a couple of years) and I had a great coach and tag-team partner for geometry which became a walk in the park. By our senior year, we were solving math and physics problems at the end of chapters that the teacher had just begun discussing. We were the ultimate nerds who always had a set of ballpens and a scientific calculator in our pockets — and our calculators were programmable, mind you. We could give you the hypotenuse of a right triangle, or the roots of a quadratic equation, at the push of a button.
We both majored in physics in college, although we went to different schools, but he stuck with it while I later shifted to computer science when I couldn’t handle the daily dose of equations I faced. When I graduated, I became a high school teacher for several years. I taught mainly English Literature, Math and Physics.
So let’s go back to Duterte and his math “solution.” I agree with his assessment that many Filipinos suffer from math anxiety. I was one of those, and as an algebra teacher, I’ve seen many of my students break into cold sweat when they start seeing x’s and y’s on the board. I also agree that calculus and probably most of trigonometry are probably too complex for high school students and their absence from the curriculum wouldn’t really matter for most of them anyway.
But I would have to disagree with removing algebra.
At its very core, algebra trains us to see and describe patterns, a much-needed trait in problem solving (and I’m not just talking about math problems). The signs and symbols we learn are not “useless” but train our brains in the process of abstraction and generalization — a very useful skill in designing systems (traffic systems, sewage systems, electrical systems, computer systems), and so on. I agree that business math and statistics are useful and practical but algebra makes both these subjects easier to comprehend, and provides many useful tools needed to solve their problems. For example, you can see that a bunch problems are very much similar even though they are worded differently and describe different situations but the underlying mathematical principle between them is the same. Therefore, if you can solve one, you can also easily solve the others.
If I had my way, I would begin teaching algebra in elementary because word problems become so much easier to understand and solve when you learn how to transform long blocks of text into a short equation.
So while I do not agree with the specifics of his solution, I agree with its spirit, that Math should be made more relevant and practical for the students. I recently reviewed the K to 12 program of DepEd and found that most of it already conforms to Digong’s wishes. Calculus and trigonometry are NOT compulsory — you only take these in senior high IF you decide to take the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) academic track. Otherwise, all you need to graduate from Junior High is arithmetic, algebra, geometry and probability and statistics. Business math is also compulsory in senior high.
So there you are, Mr. Mayor, it seems you need not do much about our math curriculum after all. And if you need someone to make algebra less fearsome for you, I’ll gladly do that for free.
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.