Wolfram Blog
Jackie Tran

Society’s Changing Needs for Math Debate

March 14, 2012 — Jackie Tran, computerbasedmath.org

In the “Society’s Changing Needs for Math” session at the The Computer-Based Math (CBM) Education Summit 2011, Marcus du Sautoy, Paul Wilmott, Charles Fadel, and Tim Oates discussed their views in one of the summit’s key sessions.

There was a lot of energy for debate from our summit attendees, and we did not have the time to expand on every topic after each talk. Hopefully these bite-sized videos from our speakers will open up discussions to all. Have your say and leave your thoughts on the comment section of this post or on Computer-Based Math’s YouTube Channel.

Here are some video excerpts from that session summarizing the speakers’ most engaging points:

Marcus du Sautoy—Watch Now

Marcus du Sautoy (well-known for his BBC documentaries on mathematics) questions why we are teaching the mechanisms of math before the “big ideas” behind them. His talk describes why we should be “Teaching the Shakespeare of Mathematics.”

Marcus says:

I think Conrad’s right, they’re really sort of rather obsessed with just doing calculations—it’s a bit like learning a musical instrument where nobody ever really plays you any real music and you’re just learning to do scales and arpeggios all the time and that’s not going to excite people.

Referencing Conrad’s TED Talk, he goes on to say:

I am a big believer that actually Ancient Greek is the wrong comparison here, it is about English. Why do we teach Shakespeare? Not because it is useful, but because it is enriching and it’s going to show us big ideas which will lead to utility.

Mixing and matching ideas from other fields is how we become creative as well as connect and understand the world. Think outside the box and compare music to math; then how about teaching music and math together?

We see a great potential to connect CBM to other disciplines, allowing students to learn math through the context of real-life problems in geography, history, the sciences, and so on. Learning to mix and match ideas and approaches to solving problems will spark new ideas and inspire the individuals of the future.

Paul Wilmott—Watch Now

Paul Wilmott (founder of wilmott.com and prominent figure in quantitative finance) states that he is “not a great fan of computers” and disagrees with a lot of Conrad’s views!

I agree with this point about the maths being creative and I do worry that the more computers get involved, the less creative things will be.

A great expression—you can’t learn to swim from reading books, you actually have to jump into the water, and I feel maths is exactly the same. You have to sit down with that pencil and paper and go through that process if you are to fully understand what is going on, and sub-contracting to computers too much, you lose that intimate relationship with mathematics.

It was great to have opposing views at the summit. The privilege to develop an intimate relationship with mathematics is currently only available to a small number who embrace or tolerate the current pen and pencil calculation of the curriculum. But that view depends on one’s definition of math.

Many are misled by the notion that math is just calculation. Allowing computers to do the computing and students to do the thinking can enable creativity and more involvement in problem solving. This can give more people access and show them the possibility of an intimate relationship with mathematics.

Tim Oates—Watch Now

Tim Oates (head of the expert panel on curriculum reform for England) on the challenges and purpose of the national curriculum in Britain:

I am raising this really challenging problem of the distinction between surface behavior and deep understanding.

Martin Hyland… is actually very clear on this. He said, “Look, I know exactly what I need at Cambridge, but I have no idea what you do in schools to create it,” and yet a national curriculum actually has to provide some kind of route map, some kind of epistemic map, to generate deep understanding, but specify it at the level of surface behaviors.

Not specifying the technology, but specifying the deep understanding which is expected. For example putting at perhaps an absurdly young age exploration of the change of variables in relationship to expression of rates—which you can really only do through the use of technology.

I find the “surface behavior” and “deep understanding” within a curriculum an eye opener—the right material but in the wrong place can have drastic effects. Could it be that CBM provides a more direct way of reaching deeper understanding compared to the traditional method?

Charles Fadel—Watch Now

Charles Fadel (global education thought leader, expert, and author) talks about the why, what, and how of a twenty-first century math curriculum, including the relevance, importance, and benefit of math to everyone in society.

Really deeply understanding life itself—it’s not about the mathematics of the log curve, it’s about diminishing returns, the concept of diminishing returns that we want people to know. It’s not really about bell curve, it’s really is there a difference between median and mean and what does that mean in real life?

You realize very quickly that after Numbers & Operations it is Statistics & Probability that has the widest usage and it’s taught the least—at least in school systems that I am familiar with, actually that’s worldwide including the advanced PISA countries.

I feel that the big ideas or concepts behind math should always be emphasized rather than the procedures and steps to getting a solution. Developing experience with concepts such as probability in context as well as having a broad idea of the topics in mathematics will be more applicable in later life than memorizing how to solve trivial problems (unnecessary to do by hand) in schools.

What does our society need today? What do we need to change in schools for future society? The personal thought processes of a child’s development in understanding is crucial, and that comes across in all four talks. Sautoy brings big ideas to excite children and engage them with the subject. Wilmott describes the intimate relationship one can build with math. Oates highlights deeper understanding of the concepts, which is hard to measure with surface behavior. Finally, Fadel speaks about achieving a deeper understanding of life itself through understanding math concepts.

The way we think and approach a problem is valuable, and it is what makes each of us creative and that bit different from one another. Having the confidence to handle problems and go though logical thought processes verifying validity is useful to contributing to society as well as for everyday living.

math ≠ calculating (it's a much bigger subject)

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Posted in: Mathematics
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2 Comments


Sinvula Sabuta

A need to eliminate maths paranoia among our learners is equally important to skills of calculating.

Posted by Sinvula Sabuta    March 15, 2012 at 10:35 pm
Eduard Fabra

A very useful post. Thank you very much.

Posted by Eduard Fabra    March 30, 2012 at 10:36 am


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