Algebra Unplugged: Book Review

Attention all you math-phobics. You might want to read this book. (I’ve used the US link because it has the “search inside” feature. It is also on the .ca site.) It is written by a “word-guy” with technical advice from a “math-guy” to explain algebra to folks who are (or were) lost and confused by math teachers and math textbooks. It is designed as a companion to these so you don’t have to actually do any math to read the book. And it is funny. Though if you sing tenor, you might find some of the jokes a bit offensive.

I got this out of my local library to review as a possibility for “things to have around the house” when we are finished with Challenge Math. It was on one of the Living Math lists. I can’t believe it didn’t refer to it in my other math post. Tigger had her book club so I sat in the library intending to read the introduction and skim the rest. I read the introduction and just kept on reading. I didn’t look at my watch for 45 minutes. I read another big chunk that evening sitting on the couch. Mat was doing his drawing homework and I was reading funny bits out to him. (He sings tenor. He wondered what the guy had against tenors. There is an explanatory footnote partway through.) I am not joking. I was reading an algebra book and sharing the funny bits.

Now, I am not the kind of person who ever had a problem with math. I loved math in school. I did those contests sometimes. I took 1st and 2nd year calculus in university. I also enjoyed physics. (How I became a sociologist is a whole other story.) But one thing I liked about math was the conceptual stuff. I always got that. And I never understood people who thought it was about memorizing formulas and trying to remember when you used which one. This book is for the people who didn’t get that stuff right off and need a bit of help. And it is well written. As in, written for “word guys”. He also makes jokes about math teachers and “people who spend too much time with their calculators”.

One of the things I find fascinating about parenting, and homeschooling, is working out how I do the things I know how to do so that I can explain them to my daughter. I had to work out how to skate, for example, so I could show her and explain it to her in a way that she could use. Prior to teaching her to skate, I never gave much thought to where my weight was or whether I kept my knees bent or which way I pushed which foot. I worked it out so I could teach her.

This book is like that for Algebra. It doesn’t just show you what to do it explains what is going on in the background. All the sections are short. Though I have been enjoying reading it straight through, it would make a great reference book to have alongside for a fuller explanation of something in your “Real Algebra Book” (as the author calls it). And for math-phobic parents that are worried about how to teach this stuff, it might be the thing that all of a sudden makes you “get” math.

My conclusion: This book definitely deserves a place on the shelf.

I noticed that the same author has a book on calculus: Calculus for Cats. I might have to check that out, too.


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