Should elementary students be learning algebra?

By Sawyer Pollitt, Staff Writer

The Kaput Center for Research and Innovation in STEM Education is an organization that many here at UMass Dartmouth may not know exists.  This past Wednesday they presented a lecture as part of their Colloquium series focusing on algebraic thinking in young children.

Presented by Dr. Maria Blanton, a former UMass Dartmouth professor and a lead scientist at the Technical Education and Research Center (TERC), this lecture presented experimental data showing that elementary school students are capable of learning and grasping algebraic concepts.  Dr. Blanton began the lecture by identifying “America’s algebra problem.” She said that the algebra that many of us begin to learn in high school does not represent the importance of algebraic concepts.

She went on to state that the American education system offers a “flawed foundation” for future mathematical education. The importance of algebra was also exemplified through data that points to improved performance in the lives of students who successfully complete algebra II. These improvements include greater access to college for those who grasp algebra as well as a graduation rate of double that of people who do not complete algebra II.

Dr. Blanton hopes to fix this algebra problem in America by taking a longitudinal approach to algebra education, teaching algebraic concepts starting from kindergarten and continuing through twelfth grade. She is accomplishing this through Project LEAP (Learning through an Early Algebra Progression).

By following two groups of children, a control group and a group in the LEAP program, from third to fifth grade Dr. Blanton is able to show how her program can improve comprehension of algebraic concepts.

These concepts include: identifying patterns and structures, and describing and analyzing how quantities relate to each other. At the beginning of the study both the control and experimental group show a similar lack of knowledge regarding  algebra.

Over time both groups show improvement, and finally by the end of the fifth grade, the children in the LEAP program outperform traditionally educated students by ninety percent on common assessments.

During the lecture a video was shown providing direct evidence of a first grade student answering a question that we would have just been learning how to answer in high school.  Upon answering “a+e = e+a,” demonstrating the communicative property, an entire room full of mathematics professors, elementary educators, and PhD students collectively gasped and shook their heads in disbelief.

The student then went on to explain the reasoning behind her answer and showed that she was not merely memorizing an equation, but understands that numbers can be represented by letters, and that different variables have different values.

As one professor in the room put it, “I still have students in discrete mathematics who struggle with the commutative property.”

Although it may be years until anything like the LEAP program is adopted nationwide, this research is a promising step toward improving the educational system in America, and laying a strong foundation for critical thinking skills and mathematical aptitude in our students.

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