Algebra? It’s Just a Box!

Algebra is a scary word. I know because it scared me when I was younger. I hated maths at school. I didn’t understand it, I didn’t want to understand it and I have no idea how I managed to get my maths O’level! It’s only since deciding, later in life, that I wanted to become a teacher that I have relearned maths and, thanks to family and this brilliant book by Derek Haylock, discovered that it doesn’t have to be hard.

I can remember sitting in lessons, struggling with numbers and then being horrified when suddenly we had letters thrown in as well. That didn’t make sense – letters belonged in English lessons, not maths.

Given all that, I can understand why children panic when it comes to algebra. The best way I have found to reassure them is to tell them it’s just a box.

5 + n = 7 looks impossible to some children, so we take the letter away and replace it with a box.

5 + □ = 7 is the sort of thing they’ve been used to since KS1.

Once they are happy with this it’s only a small step to coping with 5n = 20. They agree that writing 5 x n = 20 would be confusing because it looks like two letters, but it’s still algebra so it’s still just a box, so they just add in the x themselves. So now we have:

5 x □ = 20 . Simple!

I’ve had children go from tears and tantrums to smiles of delight in about 10 minutes, as they ask “Is that it?” From then on if you ask them if algebra is difficult they’ll smile at you and say, “No. It’s just a box.”

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