There’s a new way to learn algebra 

SFUSD is emphasizing “conceptual understanding,” an approach that cares about the process more than answers.
  • SFUSD is emphasizing “conceptual understanding,” an approach that cares about the process more than answers.
Forget how you were taught algebra. Now, let me introduce you to a much, much better way to learn it.

But first, a word from Stanford professor Jo Boaler: “Math is not about speed, memorization or learning lots of rules. There is no such thing as ‘math people’ and ‘nonmath people.’”

Taking time to understand the concept

Here at the San Francisco Unified School District, we are taking the pressure off kids to memorize equations and rules quickly without understanding why the rules work. Instead, we are giving students the time to understand and apply the concepts as well as learn the rules.

You wouldn’t ask a builder to put on the roof before completing the foundation, right?

And to make sure they really know, students must describe how they understand it. Then they turn to their classmates to learn how others understand it.

But they don’t just say, “Here’s how I did it, now it’s your turn,” and continue to learn mathematical thinking from each other.

To make sure they really really get it, they show everyone how the math concept works in real life.

This is what we call “conceptual understanding.”

Improving upon how we teach algebra

So, to follow this better way of teaching math, our courses have changed, too.

Our eighth-grade math course contains all of the content from the first semester of the traditional Algebra 1 course (proportional relationships, linear functions, systems of equations, etc.) and is combined with concepts from geometry and statistics courses. Our Algebra 1 course includes the second semester of the former Algebra 1 course (quadratic equations, polynomials, etc.) as well as content not previously taught in high school math, such as mathematical modeling and categorical data analysis.

How does this affect getting into college?

With the SFUSD’s new course sequence, our students will be better-equipped for college-level math, and all students who wish to take Advanced Placement math in high school, will have the opportunity to do so. By taking the more rigorous algebra course in ninth grade, geometry in 10th grade and Algebra 2 or precalculus in 11th grade, students can take Advanced Placement calculus in their senior year.

If a student wishes to progress faster and take AP calculus in 11th grade, they may double-up by taking geometry simultaneously with an algebra course during their ninth- or 10th-grade years. We’ve been accommodating students this way for years.

It’s time for a change

This change is crucial for our students. Students must learn to apply algebraic concepts and skills to real world situations for the 21st century.

To be honest, other school districts considered taking the same approach as the SFUSD, but told us they found it too hard to change. But we are a city of firsts.

Our San Francisco public schools are not afraid to take the lead to make education better for its students — and create a highly skilled workforce for this city in the decades to come.
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