Skip to main content

The Algebra Project, Feature Talk, and the History of Mathematics

  • 154 Accesses

Part of the Annals of the Canadian Society for History and Philosophy of Mathematics/ Société canadienne d’histoire et de philosophie des mathématiques book series (ACSHPM)


Robert P. Moses (1935–2021) was an activist and educator who taught mathematics and studied philosophy. Bob Moses is renowned for his efforts to organize volunteers from around the country who came to Mississippi to help black Americans register to vote. Moses is less widely known as an education reformer, whose philosophy of mathematics shaped the Algebra Project, a curricular approach designed to teach algebra to adolescents. This paper considers what Moses calls “Feature Talk” as opposed to “People Talk.” People talk is any natural language. In contrast, feature talk is what results from the mathematization of natural languages when restrictions are placed on how language is used in problem-solving settings to make mathematical relations more tractable. Feature talk is an intermediary between ordinary languages, as commonly spoken, and formal notations, as written by mathematicians and scientists. Feature talk imposes rules that regiment ordinary language, as proposed by Quine. Moses’ concept of feature talk is useful for historians of mathematics, especially historians of algebra, who show us how past mathematicians regimented ordinary language in extraordinary ways before the development of algebraic symbolism. Feature talk highlights part of a powerful pedagogical strategy and provides insight into how mathematical practices are cultivated over time.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

USD   29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Available as PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
USD   109.00
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Available as EPUB and PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
Hardcover Book
USD   139.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Durable hardcover edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info

Tax calculation will be finalised at checkout

Purchases are for personal use only

Learn about institutional subscriptions


  • Chemla, K (2006) Artificial Languages in the Mathematics of Ancient China. J Indian Philos 34: 31–56

    CrossRef  MATH  Google Scholar 

  • Chen X, Simone, S (2016) Remedial Coursetaking at U.S. Public 2- and 4-Year Institutions: Scope, Experiences, and Outcomes. US DOE Cited 14 Nov 2021

  • Davis, F et al (2007) Transactions of Mathematical Knowledge in the Algebra Project. In: Nasir, NS, Cobb, P (eds) Improving Access to Mathematics: Diversity and Equity in the Classroom. Teachers College, New York: p 69–88

    Google Scholar 

  • Grant, J (1998) Ella Baker: Freedom Bound. Wiley, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Gregory, PA (2020) Quine’s Deflationary Structuralism. In: Janssen-Lauret, L (ed) Quine, Structure, and Ontology. Oxford University, Oxford: p 96–116

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Jetter, A (1993) Mississippi Learning. NYT Magazine. February 21, Section 6: 28

    Google Scholar 

  • Katz, V (1995) The Development of Algebra and Algebra Education. In: Lacampagne, CB et alia (eds) The Algebra Initiative Colloquium. vol 1. US DOE: 15–32

    Google Scholar 

  • Katz, V (2001) Using the History of Algebra in Teaching Algebra. In: Chick, H et al (eds) The Future of the Teaching and Learning of Algebra. vol 2. UMP, Melbourne, p 353–359

    Google Scholar 

  • Katz, V (2007) Stages in the History of Algebra with Implications for Teaching. Educ Stud Math 66: 185–201

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • McCallum, W, Umland, K (2021) Remembering Bob Moses. Illustrative Mathematics. 3 Nov 2021. Cited 14 Nov 2021

  • Moses, RP (1994) Remarks on the Struggle for Citizenship and Math/Science Literacy. J Math Behav 13: 107–111

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Moses, RP (1995) Algebra, The New Civil Right. In: Lacampagne, CB., et al (eds)The Algebra Initiative Colloquium. vol 2. US DOE: 53–68

    Google Scholar 

  • Moses, RP (2009) An Earned Insurgency: Quality Education as a Constitutional Right. Harvard Educ Rev 79 (2): 370–381

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Moses, RP (2012) The Algebra Project, Theory and Practice. Video interview for NYU Steinhardt: Cited 14 Nov 2021

  • Moses, RP (2013) Bob Moses: The Nation’s Dirty Secret. Video interview for Children’s Defense Fund: Cited 14 Nov 2021

  • Moses, RP (2020) The Algebra Project: Bob Moses on math literacy as a civil right – Part 1. Interview with Moscow, J, Halpern-Laff, A: Cited 14 Nov 2021

  • Moses, RP (2021) Returning to ‘Normal’ in Education is Not Good Enough. The Imprint Youth and Family News. 8/24/21: Cited 14 Nov 2021

  • Moses, RP, Cobb, CE (2001) Radical Equations. Beacon: Boston

    Google Scholar 

  • Moses, RP et al (1989) The Algebra Project: Organizing in the Spirit of Ella. Harvard Educ Rev 59 (4): 423–443

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Moses, RP et al (2009) Culturally Responsive Mathematics Education in the Algebra Project. In: Greer, B et al (eds) Culturally Responsive Mathematics Education. Routledge, New York, p 239–256

    Google Scholar 

  • Payne, CM (2001) So Much Reform, So Little Change: Building-Level Obstacles to Urban School Reform. In: Joseph, L (ed) Education Policy for the 21st Century: Challenges and Opportunities in Standards-Based Reform. University of Chicago, Chicago, p 239–278

    Google Scholar 

  • Quine, WVO (1981) Theories and Things. Harvard UP, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Quine, WVO (1992) Pursuit of Truth. Rev Ed. Harvard UP, Cambridge

    MATH  Google Scholar 

  • Rothschild, MA (1982) The Volunteers and the Freedom Schools: Education for Social Change in Mississippi. Hist Educ Quart 22 (4): 401–420

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Ryg, M (2014) Radical Equations as American Philosophy: Dewey’s Experience, Quine in a Straight Jacket, and Algebra from Moses. Cont Pragmatism 11 (2): 19–32

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Silva, CM et al (1990) The Algebra Project: Making Middle School Mathematics Count. J Negro Educ 59 (3): 375–391

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • SNCC Digital Gateway. Cited 14 Nov 2021

  • Steiner, M (2008) Teaching Elementary Arithmetic through Applications. In: Curren, R (ed) A Companion to the Philosophy of Education. Wiley, New York, p 354–364

    Google Scholar 

  • Wahman, JT (2009) ‘Fleshing Out Consensus’: Radical Pragmatism, Civil Rights, and the Algebra Project. Educ and Culture 25 (1): 7–16

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • The Young People’s Project. Cited 14 Nov 2021

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Madeline Muntersbjorn .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2023 The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG

About this chapter

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Muntersbjorn, M. (2023). The Algebra Project, Feature Talk, and the History of Mathematics. In: Zack, M., Waszek, D. (eds) Research in History and Philosophy of Mathematics. Annals of the Canadian Society for History and Philosophy of Mathematics/ Société canadienne d’histoire et de philosophie des mathématiques. Birkhäuser, Cham.

Download citation