The Link Homeschooling Magazine

Using Game Pieces to Demystify Algebra
By Linda Pliagas (2007)



"After watching a sample of his Hands-On Equations videos, I finally actually got it!"

With his dapper, relaxed style, the beret-wearing Dr. Henry Borenson, a mathematical master, helped me conquer my worst nightmare: Algebra. After watching a sample of his Hands-On Equations video, I finally actually got it! I was able to solve equations such as 4x + 3 = 3x + 9 and 2(x+4) = x + 10 and to understand what I was doing.

Dr. Borenson, who has been an educator for 30 years and received degrees from the University of Southern California and Teachers College, Columbia University, realized that a different kind of teaching method was needed for learners who preferred a tactile and visual style of learning.

“I was aware that students were having a hard time learning algebra as traditionally presented,” noted Dr. Borenson. His mission to make algebraic concepts simple, non-threatening and accessible to young students became a two-year long project, which resulted in the development of Hands-On Equation. In the development phase he worked with gifted students but also with students with learning disabilities. “I wanted to learn from students with learning disabilities the approach which they would find most natural using the game pieces. I then incorporated those approaches into the program,” he said.

The program has now been used in the United States for more than 20 years. More than 150 research studies have been conducted showing the effectiveness of the method with students from grades 4 through 9.

Dr. Borenson believes in introducing abstract algebraic equations with physical objects and using his unique approach as early as the 3rd or 4th grade. He feels it is important to provide students with a positive experience early on to avoid the fear and anxiety that is usually associated with the subject. An early introduction will also increase a student’s confidence level. The only prerequisite that he notes is that the student be able to do some simple addition mentally, such as finding the sum of 7 and 8, or to be able to skip count with numbers up to 10. Nonetheless, he has seen students who are weak with arithmetic gain tremendously from the program and has seen some of them become motivated to master their basic facts.

"His approach, therefore, has been to demystify the symbols and processes of algebra, and to incorporate kinesthetic learning into the picture."

“In traditional instruction, students often don’t grasp algebra because the notation that is used complicates the algebraic concepts,” explains Dr. Borenson. He says students see the notations as “foreign symbols.” He adds, “Students simply cannot do something when they do not understand the language of instruction.” His approach, therefore, has been to demystify the symbols and processes of algebra, and to incorporate kinesthetic learning into the picture.

What resulted from his efforts is a complete learning system consisting of a mathematical game with vibrant pawns and cubes designed to teach introductory algebra in a whole new way -- with concrete representation of algebraic symbols and processes, in a manner that makes intuitive sense to the student.

In the last two years, Dr. Borenson added a verbal problems book which explains how to use his methods to simplify the learning of word problems. Hands-On-Equations is an entire learning system: included with the game is a set of manuals, worksheets and an answer key. Home educators can purchase a home packet, which also includes a DVD. In the video, Dr. Borenson presents algebra in a relaxed, non-threatening manner and also has children demonstrating the game and solving equations. Children guiding children to learn algebra: What a great method of teaching! Homeschool groups and traditional K-12 teachers can order a class set for up to 40 students.

His company, Borenson and Associates, Inc., also developed into a network of teacher-practitioners and presenters, who travel around the country providing workshops to teach teachers how to teach students using his system to make algebra fun and easy to understand. More than 25,000 teachers have been trained in the use of the program.