The 10 Best Algebra Textbooks
A Lesson In Mathematics
Few subjects in school send students into a state of cross-eyes confusion more readily than mathematics. Even among students who naturally excel at it, who are somehow more attuned to the principals of the mathematical world, there can be a resistance to the subject.
I've had some good conversations with mathematician friends of mine, as well as a couple current math teachers, about why so many students balk at math more than other classes. I expected most of them to tell me that math is just harder to learn, or that the majority of human brains simply aren't built to wrap themselves around concepts beyond a certain level.
To my surprise, the bulk of the conversations I had shared a common thread. It's not that higher levels of math are necessarily more difficult to learn; most of the people I talked to said that certain higher levels of math are actually harder to teach.
That may seem like a matter of semantics, but take a look at how we physically interact with our world using math. Learning addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division through elementary school, we find ourselves applying what we learn on a near daily basis. Going to the store for snacks, saving up our allowance for a new video game–everything about this mathematical experience is tangible.
It's when we get into the intangibles that things get hairy. Most school textbooks covering algebra or geometry spend 90% of their pages explaining concepts and formulas as dryly as possible, and finish off each chapter with a petty attempt at exemplifying a scenario in which you might actually apply a given lesson.
That's all well and good for the one student in a thousand who goes on to become an architect, but there's no hook in it for the rest of us. When I got to college, after sloughing through years of unintelligible, inapplicable math textbooks, I took a practical physics class, and I realized what all math text books needed, which is something these algebra books have in varying degrees: a sense of wonder.
The seven books on our list all combine centuries worth of algebraic discovery into a few hundred pages of lessons, quizzes, and examples, but in recent years–likely in response to this sense among math teachers that there was something missing from their books–math texts have been imbued with a greater sense of magic, with the idea that numbers have meanings and implications we can only begin to grasp.
A Method To Your Mathness
As important as I think a sense of mystery is to the education of young mathematical minds, you may completely disagree. And that's fine. Like I said, there are varying degrees of wonder spread through the books on our list, so you can go with the driest among them if that suits your style.
After all, each of us learns in slightly different ways. I know that I need my sense of suspicion and curiosity stimulated for my brain to open up to new information. I suspect that this is true of most brains, though I'm sure some shut down as soon as things get philosophical.
As you read up on the descriptions offered for each of the algebra textbooks on our list, it'd be worth keeping in mind your personal learning style. If you're investigating these books as teaching tools, then a close look at your teaching style will be just as useful.
When I taught English for a year at my old high school before heading to graduate school, I actually preferred the drier texts to the more evocative ones. I found that I flew so far off the handle imaginatively that if I had a textbook that did the same, we'd never get anything done. I used a more conservative packet of materials to ground my teaching insanity.
You might be just the opposite, preferring a text that can elevate your lessons to new heights. Whatever your approach, there's a book on this list that'll fit the mold. Not all of the algebra texts on this list approach the same educational levels, either, so make sure that fit is suited to the height you wish to teach or to attain.
Ages Of Algebra
It's a comfortable thing for westerners to attribute all of the great historical achievements of mankind to Greek and Roman thinkers, but the roots of algebra and other mathematical works reache back much farther than that.
Archeologists and math historians have dated the oldest texts known to man that elucidate algebraic concepts to sometime between 2000 and 1500 BCE. These texts–the Babylonian Plimpton 322 tablet and the Egyptian Rhind papyrus–both put forth models of linear equations.
The work of these ancient mathematicians spread to the critical thinkers of Greek antiquity, whose work then spread to the Persian empire. By the time the Persian mathematicians made their own great strides in the art, they'd already distributed the thought eastward and into India and China. At the height of the Persian empire, western Europe received a new taste of evolved algebra up through Spain.
All this rich history covering centuries of exploration, experimentation, and expression, all so sleepy students could have the luxury of checking out in the middle of math class and thinking, instead, about their crush sitting across the classroom.