• Because Algebra focuses on the general, while Arithmetic focuses on the particulars. Both are needed. Each provides insight to the other. But kids are already overloaded with the many particulars of Arithmetic – they can benefit from seeing and learning about the big picture generalities of Algebra.

• Because with Arithmetic, kids often lose sight of the forest because the focus is on all the many trees.

• Because the Algebra focus on the forest shows how similar trees are related to each other.

• Because the Algebra focus on the forest shows how apparently very un-similar trees are also related to each other.

• Because Algebra requires Arithmetic skills, thus putting Arithmetic in context and showing one answer to “Why do we need to learn this?”

• Because kids can learn both Algebra and Arithmetic at the same time.

• Because the early experience with and study of Algebra precludes the 6-years-of-only-Arithmetic approach. This Arithmetic-only path leads too many kids to complacency and boredom before getting blown away with this new creature called “Algebra.”

• Because the teaching of Arithmetic is too often rule driven, rather than concept driven. This means that many kids up through 5th-6th grades can memorize all the rules without really understanding what they’re doing – and then they hit a wall with the many new concepts in Algebra.

• Because how many times have you heard an adult say, “I was good at math through 6th grade, until I got to Algebra…”?

It’s time to re-introduce one of the most popular math games that I know of: the card game called SET.

SET is a card game of logic, geometric shapes, and visual perception. It’s a fast moving game in which neither age nor academic excellence is necessarily an advantage. SET is simple and clever: each of the 81 cards has one to three icons that can be any of 3 different colors (red, green, purple), any of 3 different amounts (single, double, triple), any of 3 different shades (solid, hollow, striped), and any of 3 different shapes (diamond, oval, squiggle).

For example, a single card could have two red striped diamonds, and another card could have three purple solid ovals. Three different possible variations on each of four criteria is 3•3•3•3 = 81 different cards.

Lay the 12 or 15 cards out in a rectangular grade. The goal is to find three cards (always three) that are either all three the same or all three different for each of the four criteria (color, amount, shade, shape).

The game is actually easier to play than it is to explain, and while SET is not hard to learn, it still continues to challenge both experienced players  and novices of all ages. Because SET can be played alone or in groups of 2 or more, it is a great activity for a classroom tournament, or a family game night, or a solitaire session on a dull afternoon.
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I first taught my younger son to play the game at age 7. Although I was no slouch at playing SET, this… kid… consistently beat the pants off me. Both of us delighted in a young boy being able to beat Dad so convincingly.

SET earned Game of the Year awards from numerous game organizations and magazines in the early 1990s. This game is for adults, adolescents, and kids as young as age 7.

SET isn’t a game involving quantitative math (numbers, ratios, calculations, etc.) – but it is a math game because it involves logic, perception, and visual discrimination. Visual discrimination is the ability to look at a group of items and then group or re-group – or even un-group – them according to some specific criteria. In SET, players have to find three cards that can be grouped together according to four separate criteria. The multi-tasking involved in keeping track of four separate criteria is great brain building. For the most part, all that brain-building is dominated by a game that is sheer, challenging fun.

One year we had a student named Chelsea in our summer algebra program SAI who a few years later turned up in one of my math classes at the high school where I teach. In our summer program she was very alert and astute and positive – she seemed to learn a lot from SAI. In my high school math class, she was just as teachable and positive, and she went on to a few more years of high school math after she finished my class.

All of a sudden Chelsea is a senior, just a few days away from graduation. I hardly ever saw her in the building because even the math classes she took were in a different part of the building from my room. So when I saw her walking past my room after school one day, I called her over to see what her plans were after high school. We chatted pleasantly for a few minutes, and then I realized I had a question to ask her.

So I said, “Chelsea, I know you’ve always been a good student here in high school, so I want to ask you: Do you remember the SAI class you took with me that summer a year or two before high school?”

She said that of course she remembered it. Then I asked her, “Given that you’ve always been a good student, as you look back on SAI, do you think it helped you do better in high school math? Or would you have done just as well anyway since you’re such a good student?”

This is what was cool: her whole face lit up with her great smile and she very enthusiastically said, “Your SAI class really helped me, because when I started taking regular algebra during the school year, I already knew the that x and x2 were different, and I already knew how to factor quadratics. But a lot of my classmates weren’t clear on things like that. So while they struggled with those things, I was already at the next problem or done with the assignment. For sure, SAI was very helpful for me.”

That was gratifying and encouraging for me to hear first-hand from a student what I already pretty sure of: SAI made algebra much, much easier for a very bright student. That’s cool. That’s why we do this. SAI enriches a student’s mind so much, with dynamics like color, shape, size, texture, music, movement, activity,and symbols building a deep and lasting understanding of foundational math concepts.

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