Thursday, February 5, 2009

Head First Algebra: A Learner's Guide to Algebra

Authors: Tracey Pilone and Dan Pilone Format: Paperback, 559 pages. Publisher: O'Reilly Media, Inc. (January 2, 2009) ISBN-10: 0596514867 ISBN-13: 978-0596514860 Update: I owe an apology to O'Reilly and anyone who has read this review so far. I rather consistently referred to the "Head First" series as the "Head Start" series. The mistake was completely mine and I apologize. No, this isn't a book that directly maps to FOSS or Linux or programming...exactly. On the other hand, the paths to programming in open and closed source usually move through this realm, so I think it is relevant. Picture yourself a would-be programmer who likes to code in your spare time, but you've got a problem. To really become any good at what you'd like to be your profession, there are math requirements, and you think math is almost as interesting as watching wind erode granite. Fortunately for you, O'Reilly and the Head First series has come to your rescue. They created "Head First Algebra". I agreed to have a look at this book first as a rough cut via Safari. Unfortunately, it presented me with a major drawback relative to my learning style; I could't write in the book. OK, I admit it. I really need to be able to write notes in my textbooks, highlight key sentences and paragraphs (which can include a sizable percentage of the book) and otherwise fold, spindle, and mutilate the thing. As hard as I tried, I just couldn't stick with it when the learning source was online. It doesn't help that I'm kind of "math-phobic" on top of everything else. Actually, that's not entirely true. I do just fine with standard math such as adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. It's all that other pesky stuff, which includes "algebra", that sets off my panic attacks. I've actually taken and passed an algebra class in the dim past, but my grades weren't exactly stellar (compared to the much higher grades I got in all of my other classes), so when I saw that Head First was offering an algebra book, I figured I had a second chance. I hate admitting defeat or anything near it. This book seemed to be my way to victory. When the paperback version of the book arrived on my doorstep, I sharpened a brand new number 2 pencil, got out a fresh highlighter, and got to work. I had gone through the first chapter in Safari, so I knew that the material would lull me into a false sense of confidence. The authors present "solving for unknowns" as simple adding/subtracting/multiplying/dividing problems (which they are), which I can do. Of course, that's the point; to bring the reader in slowly and build up their confidence. After all, if you are going to use a Head First book to learn algebra, it means that the more standard (read: dry as Gobi desert sand) texts on the subject have not been entirely successful. Actually, I'm the perfect person to review this book. If I like it, then the target audience will adore it. If I were an algebra teacher or skilled at more advanced forms of math, I probably couldn't "reduce" my thinking down to who the book is written for. It would be like an Olympic swimmer trying to review a book written to teach pre-schoolers how to paddle in a kiddie pool. All that said, I had my usual "issues" with the Head First series. The series is written for people (young and old alike) who are just a tad bit ADHD (or more) and need to have a lot of stimulus coming in more or less constantly to stay engaged. If you could teach algebra from the perspective of a first-person shooter, that would be ideal for this population, but that's hard to do in a static book. The Head First series does its best to cater to this audience (and as an aside, I just sent my rather distractable son a copy of "Head First JavaScript", and I'm dying to see what he thinks of it) and I think high school students everywhere should pay homage to O'Reilly for creating Head First. By page 14, you can see where the book is going, even though the problems are still easy enough to do in your head, and for the math-phobic, that's when the sweat will start to form on your palms. Time to confront your fears and remember, this isn't an "ordinary" algebra book. You end up seeing a nice, neat example of "isolating the variable". Seems rather benign, actually. Why do I remember this stuff being hard? Oh wait! I'm still in the first chapter. By the end of the first chapter, the reader will start to get the feeling that they might really be successful at this stuff. Naturally, there's the spectre of more complicated problems to face, but the saving grace of the book isn't just the book. Unless your high school math teacher is using this as their official text book, you will probably use this book on its own. I'd really recommend it for a "summer reading book" you go through before formally taking algebra in the fall. The book (sans class) lets you do what the classroom experience doesn't allow. You can go at your own pace. Parents reading what I just wrote will shudder in fear, calculating that their child's voluntary "pace" at learning algebra will be slightly slower than the flow of the nearest glacier (although, with "global warming" effects, that could end up being a bad analogy). Fear not. I remember thinking to myself during my own rather painful "algebra experience" that I wished I had just a little more time to "get it". I was working my sorry tail off going to class, doing homework until the wee hours, and taking tutoring, both from the instructor (nice guy, really) and outside tutoring. If effort was the ultimate measure of how well I'd do in the class, I should have gotten an A+. Alas, things like aptitude and time have something to do with it as well. That means, the existence of this book in your room or on your bookshelf isn't enough to teach you algebra, but putting significant and regular effort into it, will. Without the artificial constraints of the classroom environment, learning algebra using this book is very "do-able", even if you don't like math. Is "Head First Algebra" a fool proof method of learning algebra for everyone? Depends. First off, you have to at least be able to tolerate the format of the Head First series (and if you already love the format, then no worries for you). Then, you have to use it. I found it a little easier to go through this book than others in the series for some reason. I think that I need to learn programming in a way that doesn't lend itself to how Head First teaches, but Head First is really the way I need to learn algebra. Will wonders never cease. I don't think I'd recommend this book to be the only exposure to algebra for you (or your kids). Almost nobody learns algebra because it's fun and entertaining (OK, there are a few people out there like that, but the rest of the "herd" thinks you're weird). We learn algebra, at least formally, because we have to. I can see the ideal use for this book as I described it a few paragraphs back. Take this book and work through it over the summer, before you have to actually take a "for real" algebra class, with a teacher, other students, homework, and (ugh) tests. Play with the book and the topic, but don't be lazy. Really use it regularly so the learning remains fresh. Then, after finishing the last pages and with all that dancing in your head, enter your high school or college algebra class. Your learning curve won't be nearly as steep and you'll be "desensitized" to the fear-inducing elements of algebra. You won't be fighting memory-destroying anxiety as you're working on learning. I hear that No Starch is coming out with The Manga Guide to Calculus next summer. I wonder...


  1. Thanks so much for your comments! I'm one of the authors of the book and it's great to get feedback. As a person with "math-phobia" you're one of the people we were hoping would like the book :-).

    If you have a chance to drop by Amazon and leave a review it would help us a lot.

    Tracey Pilone
    Head First Algebra

  2. Umm - thanks for beating me to Amazon!
    Tracey Pilone

  3. No worries Tracey (and yes, I recognized your name). I wasn't sure how much traffic I could drive to the review on my blog, so thought I'd hedge my bets and "double post" on Amazon as well.

  4. James, thanks for the review.

    Tracey, I bought a copy for my daughter. She's taking intro to Algebra this summer, then Algebra I in 6th grade. She is 10 years old.

    We just finished the first chapter, so far so good. Maybe I'll write a review of the book when she's done.

    She's not the least bit ADHD, but does like a lot of stimulus. I wonder if it's more of a generational thing.

  5. Thanks for your comments. I doubt that Tracey will see them, though. If you want to comment to her directly, you might try here:


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