For Teachers

Teaching Algebra Using Project-Based Learning

By The Room 241 Team January 11, 2013

Although the phrase “algebra project-based learning” may be relatively new to some educators, the concept is supported by years of proven results.

Throughout the centuries, mothers have taught their daughters to sew garments using algebraic concepts to approximate yardage for clothing for the entire family. These skills were a necessity in many communities before populations moved away from the agrarian culture to more urban settings.

One element of providing a good fit for learners is making learning applicable to a student’s life. Learning practical skills that are relevant to daily life is crucial to successfully navigating through the educational streams that flow into the vast ocean of “real” life beyond school.

Teaching algebra with project-based learning

Educational experts experienced in project-based learning techniques suggest that the focus should be on expanding the knowledge base with activities that draw from a foundation of life experience and prior knowledge. By connecting real-life situations such as gardening, automotive repairs and behavioral studies to assigned projects, children can see the how and why of mathematical formulas and equations in tangible ways.

Sylvia Chard, co-author of “Engaging Children’s Minds: The Project Approach,” says that children naturally embrace learning techniques that respond to their desire to explore the world around them. The “project approach” enables children to ask questions, engage in bi-directional activities with their instructors and delve into real-life situations with curiosity and zeal. Her website offers many resources for new and veteran teachers who desire to incorporate project based learning activities into their lesson plans.

Chard suggests that projects be divided into three distinct phases

  • The first phase involves classroom discussions to discover students’ knowledge base and prior learning. During this phase, instructors talk about the concepts and reveal the plan for the activity.
  • The second phase is an information gathering period. Similar to field work, this phase allows students to ask questions, do research, evaluate data and express their findings through age-appropriate art work or essays.
  • The third phase is a completion phase that gives the students a chance to present the information gathered and share their knowledge with classmates or another audience—such as parents—during a formal demonstration or speech.

Rethinking the order of teaching mathematics

Seymour Papert, an MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) mathematician, suggests a radical, upside down approach to introducing children to mathematics. His premise is that engaging children in real-world activities that cross the boundaries of multiple disciplines is far superior to teaching children through traditional methods that teach numbers first, then basic math, then algebra and finally calculus.

Papert also insists that the archaic system of teaching exclusionary subjects—purely English, purely science, purely history—on a defined timeline misses opportunities to engage students in challenging, exciting opportunities.

Many experts agree on this since current technology can calculate, in a matter of seconds, what previously took hours. Understanding concrete applications before abstract concepts makes sense.

Algebra project-based learning: Planning activities

Moving toward project-based learning does not mean teachers must completely abandon problem-based instruction. Teachers can incorporate projects based on algebraic problem-solving skills. Collaborative efforts that engage student teams and encourage a joint effort can be used to reinforce learning in a more enjoyable manner than rote memorization.

Teachers can integrate algebraic concepts into any traditional subject through projects. Activities can be designed to last throughout the school year or for a period of a few weeks, depending on the scope of the project.

Planning a class garden would involve preparation before the growing season, research, planting, transplanting and harvesting. A culinary arts project could involve hosting a bake sale or preparing a dinner for parents or school officials. The possibilities are endless.

Like the 19th century mother who prepared her daughters for managing a household by teaching sewing skills, educators today should teach all subjects grounded in reality—applicable to daily living in our technology rich world of the 21st century.

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