What Happens if Algebra is Taught too Early?

Quick, solve this grade 6 question… and do it without algebra:

Two bugs are running back and forth along a straight branch at constant speeds without stopping. They start from opposite ends of the branch at the same time and meet for the first time 40cm from one end of the branch. They continue to the ends and return, meeting for the second time 20cm from the other end of the branch. How long is the branch?

This is just one of the many questions that a teacher must answer during their screening process when applying to Spirit of Math Schools. Most teachers are able to answer it with algebra, but have difficulties without it.

Because Spirit of Math was developed for high performing students, many applicants entering our program have taken other math programs outside of day school with the intent of getting ahead. Sometimes parents of younger children will proudly tell us that their child has learned algebra, so therefore, according to the parent, the child is ahead of other students. Unfortunately, this is not true. Those students may be very bright, and are looking to do more than what is given to them in their day school, but by learning algebra at a very young age, they have gone in a direction that reinforces a convergent, procedurally based type of thinking.

Most people don’t know how to properly challenge these bright students. Instead of going deeper into topics, challenging the child’s thinking, and getting them to think divergently, they teach new ideas based on procedures and linear thinking – thinking that many adults believe is the way to teach because it is easy to teach, and very nicely gets to a solution to question. This type of thinking and working is prevalent in topics such as algebra. It is very important that a student learns it, but when they learn it is just as important.

It took over 20 years to develop the Spirit of Math program. A significant part of that time was spent determining what skill sets and thinking a student required to compete with the top students in the nation.

Initially, it was thought that the students would answer the tough problem-solving questions at the grade 7 to 9 level by using algebra. But, when watching the brightest students and observing their solutions, we realized that they were not thinking in terms of algebra, (the adult thinking) –  they had a much more practical type of thinking that did not involve algebra. Their thinking required seeing the bigger picture, and putting several ideas together – ideas that weren’t necessarily introduced in the question itself, but inferred. This is what many call divergent thinking.

It has been our experience that excellent problem solvers are those who have first developed the ability to think divergently before going deeply into the linear and procedural type of thinking. It is more difficult to teach students how to think divergently, but once they have it, they will be able to use it in all areas of their lives. If a student is taught algebra before problem solving, then they will want to use the easier, linear type of thinking required in algebra, and avoid the practical, divergent thinking.

High performing students tend to learn procedures very quickly, and then find ways to apply the procedures. Knowing and developing a proficiency with procedures is essential in math, but it does not necessarily mean that the concepts were understood.

Understanding algebra is extremely important, and the foundation for a huge amount of mathematics. There is a time to teach it, and it is after a student has developed a solid conceptual foundation of numeracy and the ability to think on their own. You don’t want them to learn to just blindly follow procedures because “that is what you do”. Teaching your child to think first, and to have creative independent ideas is a gift that will last them a lifetime. Teaching algebra is relatively easy in comparison.

The answer to the bug question above? 100cm. How do you do it without algebra? Ask your grade 6 or 7 child to help you out!

The intent of this section is to give you a peek into some of the ideas behind the Spirit of Math program, so that you will understand why it works and how these methods can work for your high performing child.

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