The algebra project story

The Algebra Project had its beginnings in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Bob Moses had lived before spreading to other cities in the North. Being one of the civil rights movement leaders in Mississippi made Bob thought of bringing the Algebra Project to this region. In 1991 Bob received the Ford Foundation's funding to bring the project to the Mississippi Delta. The necessity of making the Algebra Project successful stems from the reality that most public schools in Chicago were not functioning like how schools should be. Instead of educating, the educators were powerless to teach the kids. There was no support from parents, the communities around them and the local politicians. Everybody was blaming everybody else for the lousy school system. The public school culture was one of indifference towards learning. This was because parents, teachers and the communities have no coordination. As a result, kids felt they could do whatever they want in school. The norm was to weed out the intellectuals and the rich kids and invite them to join universities and colleges. Those who do not have the "brains" were normally delegated to do manual labor. Many poorly educated kids found themselves in jail for doing illegal and criminal activities. The public school system was highly dysfunctional necessitating the need for one brave person to come up with a plan to correct the learning problem.

The Algebra Project requires participation from families and communities to be successful. Parents are once more encouraged to become role models for their children. The program is aimed at bringing together the teachers, parents, students, and community leaders to foster educational reform. Bob Moses recognizes that adult guidance is a must if real change in the school system were to be achieved.

The Roots of the Algebra Project

The Algebra Project is a long-term process that involves the community in effecting school reform. Bob Moses, a civil rights movement leader, initiated the project using the same ideals that moved the Black community to ask for reform and be given the right to vote. He saw the educational situation as a parallel social problem to that of the civil rights movement. There were many similarities and correlations that Moses saw between the two. Bob Moses saw the Algebra Project and the civil rights movement as a liberating force. While the 1960s gave African-Americans their freedom to choose, the Algebra Project is the way for poor students to have better chances at getting education and obtaining economic access. Bob Moses began the Algebra Project as a way to provide young people from poor families and those of African-American descent better economic access. He believes that economic access can be had if a person understands mathematics and science. He saw the problem plaguing public schools in the country and the lack of learning that their students were facing. Moses saw this as a related issue to that of having the right to vote back in the 1960s. Seeing that violence and criminal activities in cities are the indirect results from a dysfunctional school system, Moses wanted to correct the problem at its roots. He despises the temporary solutions that the politicians were doing. He asserted that by properly educating the youth, they would be less prone to commit crimes. Instead of being out in the streets, the youths would be sitting in school learning the things that would give them economic access.
Moses also related how technological advancement up the need for "knowledge workers." As processes become computerized, the need for workers in the assembly line lessened. What companies need now, and more so in the coming years, are those workers who can work with computers, can communicate well, and are capable of working in teams. Based on statistics, Moses noted that as more technical jobs arise, less qualified people were entering the job market. He knew that primary and secondary educational systems were not providing the country with what the job market needs.He understood that educational standards should be improved and emphasis be placed on mathematics. Computers run based on binary language, a mathematical concept that has to be understood by students. Moses also saw as a problem the way society accepted that some people should fail in math, while some have the gift of understanding its intricacies. More so, he saw as a big problem the way the Black Community in the South have no ambition of becoming famous for inventing anything related to technology. Instead, most Black youths wanted to become famous basketball stars. Because of this disregard to better themselves other than in sports, most minorities entering college have to undergo remedial classes in algebra. Although math illiteracy was not unique to the Black Community, Moses accepted that it affected them much more than the White people. He compared it to the slavery era where the colored people are for slave work, while the fair-skinned are to be their masters. Blacks must increase their knowledge in math if they don't want to end as factory workers.Moses knows that the future needs technology-literate individuals, and that technology is founded in math. Society has an imbalance that needs to be stabilized. He envisioned the Algebra Project as the answer to that need.

Five Crucial Steps

To make Algebra more appealing to the younger generation, Moses believes that is integral to relate them with real-life situations in order for the concepts to be better understood and absorbed. The new math curriculum would be experiential and culturally based. Instead of the usual classroom setting where students sit while the teacher talks in alien language, this process requires group interaction, communication and cooperation. The successful implementation of the Algebra Project depends on five steps:

1.Physical Events. The first step of the process involves a trip on a bus, a local transit system or on foot. A traditional math learning only requires sitting in class and listening to the discussion.

2.Pictorial Representation or Modeling. In this step, students are asked to draw their experiences. This is the first step in abstract representation of physical experiences. There are no rules on how to express a student's perception of his personal experience.

3.Intuitive Language or the People Talk. The students are then asked to write and discuss in their own words the physical event with the teacher emphasizing that each student has ownership of his ideas. At this stage, it should be noted how students would factually or personally relate their ideas.

4.Structured Language or the Feature Talk. From the physical events interpreted by each student, the teacher would then guide them to select features of objects that would be used to explain mathematics. In particular, the teacher has to ask students to remember four concepts that are always common in trips. These are: distance, direction, start and finish. The goal of this step is to help students build models to understand mathematics better.

5.Symbolic Representation. Once steps one to four are completed, the students will then have to use symbols for their ideas. The symbols are then discussed in groups and in the classroom. By doing this, the notion that mathematics is a series of mysterious symbols would be dispelled. The teachers are also required to think outside the box and becreative in integrating the five-step process in the way they hold lectures.

Comparison with Other Mathematics Educators

Bob Moses' goal in implementing the Algebra Project is to increase students' mathematical capabilities. This is not different from many mathematical educators' objective. Where Moses differs from them is in the process. Carolyn Kieran noted in an article that many primary and secondary teachers still practice the traditional setting, while some have embraced more creative ways in their approaches. Moses is one of those who don't conform to the norm. For one, his Algebra Project is largely patterned and founded on the civil rights movement. For many, the two concepts would never diverge. But for Moses, the two concepts are similar. According to Mark Driscoll, mathematical educators over the years have continually looked for ways to make algebra more meaningful to students. In recent years, researchers were in agreement that a skills-based teaching of algebra is not the best approach. Driscoll emphasizes the need for a more vibrant learning environment. In the 1980s, socio-democratic approaches to teaching algebra have emerged, such is the case of the Algebra Project. Moses has used social concepts to facilitate student learning. The learning environment of his project is dynamic and allows more creativity to mould the students' thinking habits. Solving problems have been done using more radical methods other than the traditional way of using letters and symbols in an equation that doesn't really make sense to many students. All educators have one goal. That is, they want to better impart their knowledge to students. As more researches have been conducted on methods to better teaching, educators began to shift away from a skill-based technique to a more radical method. Instead of focusing on teaching, mathematics researchers have encouraged teachers to focus on learning. By doingso, actual understanding of concepts is enhanced.

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