Conrad Wolfram has some big reform ideas when it comes to math education in the classroom. Countless hours are spent in a child’s educational lifetime performing hand computation to solve math problems. We’ve seen studies that prove that using technology in the classroom improves learning, but I haven’t seen any that include replacing hand computation with computer programming. Wolfram has a strong belief that if these tedious hours could be done away with, more time could be spent on real world applications and the actual mathematical concepts themselves.
As “Waiting for Superman” has brought into the mainstream, we all know we are struggling with math at a time when it is more important than ever. The need for tech jobs is increasing, and the US is producing enough qualified individuals for these positions. Wolfram thinks we can knock both of these problems out of the water by letting the computers handle the computation, or what he calls, automation.
Would a lack of hand computation stunt learning, is there something instructively helpful about working problems out by hand? He thinks this change would be empowering to teachers, students, and students after school by integrating math more deeply with technology.
Wolfram gave a very compelling talk at TED. In this talk, he answers some common questions like “What is Math?”
Wolfram believes the process of math is:
1. Posing the right question
2. Taking a problem from the real world and making it a math problem
4. Verification. Turning back to the real world and asking, did I answer the question?
80% of time in the classroom is spent on step 3, according to Wolfram. If computers completed this step, students would have time for the other steps where he believes the most important learning takes place. He provides his own equations as illustration of his idea:
Math ≠ Computation
Math > Calculating
Pretty powerful argument. Calculating is a limiting step, he says, and now we can be liberated from it.
How does he fare against critical rebuttals?
Q. Isn’t it important to “get the basics first” by hand computation?
A. Are the basics of driving a car learning to service it? Maybe it used to be, but not anymore. Automation allows separation.
Q. Don’t computers “dumb math down”?
A. Is hand calculating more intellectual? They can face bigger intellectual problems if the calculation is automated. Understanding procedures is important yes, and that is also the benefit to using computer programming by the student to exercise these understandings.
Wolfram believes using computers for computation and programming will allow bigger concepts like calculus to be presented at a younger age, so young that students will be able to “play with math, interact with it, feel it instinctively.” This is very important for people in the real world when having to make decisions about colleges, mortgages, bank accounts, credit cards, etc. This actualization could leapfrog us to an improved economy. He knows his ideas would take huge reform due to drastic changes in teaching and assessment, but whichever country implements this first, he thinks, will have command of the world.
Stephen Wolfram is the founder of Wolfram Research. He’s already building on his ideas, and teachers can download some resources at his website.