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What's An Algorithm? Experts Stumped

This was the headline in a local newspaper in SC. The text that follows is a copy of the text that accompanied the headline.


A funny thing happened at last week's Board of Education meeting--the experts were stumped.

It all started when Mrs. A, a member of the board, read over a list of proposed math books suggested by the district staff for use in county schools next week.

"What," she asked, "is an algorithm?"

The sequence of answers went something like this: First, an embarrassing silence struck the room of people. Then, Mr. B, Assistant Principal of Instruction, offered a brave stab at a definition.

"Mrs. A," said Mr. B, "an algorithm is an uh...uh...to tell the truth...uh...I'm not exactly sure what an algorithm is."

Heads turned expectantly toward Superintendent of Education, Dr. C, "Oh, I'm sure I do not need to explain what an algorithm is to this fine group of educators," he hedged. "Dr. G can tell us, I'm sure."

With the buck thus deftly passed to his lap, board member Dr. G, a professor at C. College offered: "It's simple. An alogorithm is logarithm misspelled."

The Superintendent turned to the press. "Let's not put this in the paper," he laughed.

"Suits me," I replied. "I can't even spell it."

At that point, a man sitting next to me leaned over with the best explanation of the day.

"Don't you know?" he whispered. "An algorithm is the birth control method used by algors."

That made sense--kind of. Only, it seems like a strange way to teach students how to multiply.


Almost 25 years have passed since this meeting occurred and was reported. Have times changed? Could school boards do better today? That is, have we as math teachers done a better job educating school administrators as to what mathematics education is about so that they can connverse intelligently about it?

Source: Arithmetic Teacher, Jan. 1982