Thursday, April 28, 2011

High School Algebra in Latin America

I'm grossly generalizing here in the title of this post, I will mostly discuss about my own experience as a high school student in Ecuador. But as I have read from several sources, some of these things indeed apply to lots of places in Latin America. That being said, I will keep the title.

If you come from one of the spanish-speaking countries in Latin America, you might with high probability recognize the book cover in this blog post. This is what used to be and is the synonym for algebra for most high school students in those regions. If you don't recognize this image, be it because you're not from Latin America or you really didn't know about it, then I would really like to know what's the standard book used in your country for learning algebra. This book is so pervasive in lots of places in Latin America that the word Algebra and Baldor and the picture of the guy with the turbant all come together to people's mind when the word 'algebra' is uttered.

What most people don't know is that Baldor was a Cuban mathematician who later emigrated to the United States and not the guy with the turbant depicted on the book cover. I couldn't find much information about his education in mathematics or other published material from him but he held a teaching position in the United States later in life, although the book was already being distributed from Mexico at the time. I believe one of the reasons for the adoption of his book was the lack of mathematics textbooks in Spanish at the time. But mainly because this is also a good book and if it has any flaws I believe those are the same flaws that books in other languages might have and I will refer to this in the following paragraphs.

One thing that I particularly like about this book is that it's well organized and easy to follow, I would say even easy to follow on your own. One thing I don't like is that most of the exercises are repetitive and easy, even sometimes boring. One thing that I like is that every few pages it has short biographies for every major mathematician in history. This is probably the first book where students get to know who are Laplace, Euler, Descartes, Newton, Fermat, etc. Guys who you will keep on hearing from, especially if you go into the hard sciences later in college.

Finally I will quote something said by the great physicist Richard Feynman in his interview with the BBC and which I think illustrates a criticism that applies to this book as well as to books in other languages regarding teaching science:

"I learnt algebra fortunately by not going to school and knowing the whole idea was to find out what x was and it didn't make any difference how you did it, there's no such thing as, you know, you do it by arithmetic, you do it by algebra, that was a false thing that they had invented in schools so that the children who have to study algebra can all pass it. They had invented a set of rules which if you followed them without thinking could produce the answer: subtract 7 from both sides, if you have a multiplier divide both sides by the multiplier and so on, and a series of steps by which you could get the answer if you didn't understand what you were trying to do."

I think this applies to this textbook and I highly doubt Prof. Feynman was ever in touch with our legendary Baldor's Algebra. Sadly, this is just the way Algebra is being taught in schools in general: learn the rules and get me the results.

Related Links, Sources:
Richard Feynman's interview
Aurelio Baldor's wikipedia entry

Update (April 30, 2011):
I just want to clarify that even though I mention this Baldor Algebra book was adopted maybe because it was a good book giving the standards of the time and available books in Spanish, I also state that it's too easy and boring and even if it was more difficult then it would still fall in the mistakes other books fall, just teaching calculations and rules and not the beauty of math. The idea is better pictured in the following video, this is a TED Talk by Conrad Wolfram on his view of teaching math.
http://www.ted.com/talks/conrad_wolfram_teaching_kids_real_math_with_computers.html
(Thanks @sergioroa from DFKI - Germany for sending the link)