Math ≠ Calculating

We hear it over an over again. Science and math education needs to be reformed. Students are being left behind in this new high-tech economy. Companies can’t find enough skilled workers to fill technical jobs.

Conrad Wolfram thinks he has the solution, make math curriculum reflect how math is used in the real world. To this end, Wolfram founded computerbasedmath.org, a campaign to “refocus math education away from historical hand-calculating techniques and toward relevant and conceptually interesting topics.”

In his 2010 TED talk, Wolfram argued that real world math has 4 steps (shown below). In this age, when computers can do Step 3 much better than any person, why do we spend 80% of math instruction time on doing calculations by hand? Shouldn’t we be spending more time on the other 3 steps, which teach students how to relate math to real world problems, and at the same time, give them a deeper understanding of the math.

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Wolframs goes on to say:

If I wanted to pick the number one advantage of Computer-Based Math, I would say—massively accelerated experience and intuition. In the time you can do one hand calculation, you can do 20–30 calculations on the computer. They can be harder. They can have hair all over them. That’s a really important part of it. You’re not just always dealing with a simplified problem, the thing that was made especially for education. People can experience much more quickly. They can feel math in a way that they didn’t before. It can be integral to their intuition, a natural way to experience the world. That’s what we’d like to achieve.

Of course, the impediment to changing the way math is taught is overhauling the curriculum and testing. The types of test questions would need to be changed and testing would have to happen on computers. But, Wolfram argues that it would be worth the effort, because “I think it can take us from a knowledge economy to what I call a computational knowledge economy where high-level mathematical thinking is widespread—for many, not just the few… The country to do this first will leapfrog others.”

If you would like to try out some of the computer demonstrations he discusses in the TED talk, you can find them at the Wolfram Demonstrations Project. You simply need to download and install the free Wolfram CDF player.

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