The Man Who Made Algebra Child's Play

Julia Steiny

Education News

Feb. 14, 2013

Dr. Henry Borenson began his career as a math teacher at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. Like Boston Latin, Stuyvesant uses an exam to cream the best public-school students. For those smartie pantses, algebra was a breeze. Borenson’s biggest problem was the constant need to invent intriguing work to challenge his kids.

Then he took a job as Math Supervisor in another state. As such, he descended from the lofty reaches of gifted-and-talented programs and became responsible for teaching, well, the rest of us. Like so many young students now as well as back in my day, I developed a profound algebra aversion. It made me feel so hopelessly inept that I narrowed my college search to those that would not make me take math.

Borenson explains, “The way algebra was traditionally taught involved memorization without understanding.” Well, not understanding makes anyone feel stupid and totally turned off. No wonder many kids don’t like math.

Patricia Scales, the principal of the school I visited for last week’s column on this subject, explained, “We hurry kids along when we really need to slow down and teach process and understanding. Only by getting solid foundations of a skill can they get to the next level, which takes time. But if you have them do it by rote, they don’t understand and they’re not thinking.”

Especially with the testing insanity of the last decade or so, teachers want to help their students arrive at correct answers absolutely asap. So math instruction often regresses to teaching rules — algorithms, formulae, tricks, rote. Which is boring.

Of course, many math teachers don’t themselves have deep understanding that they can pass on with confidence. They too mainly learned the rules.

Borenson says, “The focus of my entire career has been on the teaching of math. Already 25 years ago, I was looking to make algebra more visual to support understanding. I wanted to demystify the meaning of equations by representing them physically.”

His first effort was a crude system of letters and pictures designed to help a disengaged 8th-grade class. “These visualizations allowed the weakest student in the class to solve advanced mathematics problem. To her it was instantly obvious. Clearly algebra needed to be more concrete so kids could get used to it and like it.”

That early work evolved into what became his life’s brainchild: Hands-on Equations. Designed for students grades 3 – 8, and struggling high-school students, the program has kids build equations, literally, with chess-like pawns representing the variables and numbered cubes. (A child demonstrates how to do it here.)

Borenson says, “Pawns and cubes are much friendlier than x and y. Kids can see that you can’t combine a constant (number) and x. Each lesson introduces only one more concept, and the sequence of lessons provides building blocks for young learners. Hands-on Equations is designed to give kids a head start before taking a regular algebra class.”

He adds, “When a kid is working on a video game, they don’t ask, when am I going to use this skill? The reason they always ask what algebra is good for is because it’s boring. They don’t understand what they’re doing, and they’re not successful. Video games require strategic thinking; Hands-on Equations does the same.”

Helping kids feel confident about their ability to think through a problem sets them up with good attitudes.

Hands-on Equations is not new, but it’s still too much under the radar. Over the years, tons of research has supported the program’s success with inner-city kids, English language learners, special needs students, and indeed, all kids. In video testimonials, math teachers and researchers both report the same experience I had at Patricia Scales’ school, watching light bulbs popping over the kid’s heads.

Hands-on Equations was voted the #2 most downloaded math program for the iPad. Borenson argues that no other actually teaches algebra. “In most math apps, the child knows he’s right because the program says ‘Terrific!’ or ‘Good Job!’ or something. Scientific American gave one (program) a top rating that can’t teach algebra because there is no way for a child to check his answer. That’s enabling. The fancy graphics are not teaching a kid to solve the problem on his own.”

The program is gamelike, but without points, winning, or racing. Kids learn math rules as “legal moves,” in the language of video games.

Borenson’s colleagues offer professional development for the use of the program. But honestly, he and the teachers I met believe that the manual supplied with the kits provides all a motivated teacher needs to know. The kits themselves are relatively inexpensive, and Borenson is negotiable when schools are seriously strapped. A book of word problems supplements each lesson, to keep the more advanced kids challenged.

It’s rare for me to laud a marketed product. But Hands-on Equations certainly would have cleared up my problems with algebra, perhaps opening up my college search.

Borenson says, “The point is to get kids used to algebra so they like it. It’s important that they develop positive attitudes towards math.”

Surely improved attitudes would work wonders on kids’ anemic math achievement.

About the Author:

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.For more detail, see or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904