Making math real

A fascinating talk by Conrad Wolfram teaching kids math through computer programming. Should we still be teaching manual computation?

4 thoughts on “Making math real

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  1. Math is a huge barrier for students at the community college where I work, and all over the country.
    The ones who can do manual computation *usually* have *some* idea of what numbers mean. The ones who’ve had “enlightened” teachers and don’t even know their times tables – and they are legion – often fail.
    It’s a great way to keep people in their place, socioeconomically.


  2. What a great video! He has a good point about computers being everywhere. The computation that is often considered “mindless button-pushing” if done by a computer is only part of the process. I took an introductory statistics course where we used the TI-84 calculator almost nonstop. But we had to know what to enter into the calculator and what model should best fit the data. Statistics is applied mathematics, very useful in the real world, so it made sense for us to use the technology that is used in the real world to do the number crunching. But since I enjoyed learning the “ancient Greek” of hand computation (I wanted to know what that calculator was doing, and, to tell you the truth, I wish our schools had had some class to teach us ring theory and modular arithmetic even though I can easily find them online), I think that students who are interested in mathematical computation should be able to learn it in addition to, not instead of, real-world mathematics. (Somebody has to know the computations to program the computers, and everybody should know enough math to be able to tell if they’re being ripped off or if they’re getting a bargain.) Students who “hate math” shouldn’t have to go through all the pure mathematical computation, except possibly for a few years of introduction. When I was in elementary school, I had to go to art with the rest of the class as a “special”; by the fourth grade I was convinced that painting and building things out of clay wasn’t my thing. But some kids probably discovered a talent and interest for art. Likewise, as long as students have at least gotten through percentages (for mental arithmetic and numeracy purposes), there is no need to force additional hand computation into the heads of uninterested students who probably won’t take on jobs that require knowledge of quadratic equations or trigonometric identities.

    However, I do not agree with the philosophy that some people have, that students should not even have to memorize the basic addition and multiplication tables. If people don’t learn their times tables, how will they be able to calculate the tax on items at the grocery store to know how much they need to put back when they’re on a tight budget and their iPhone battery is dead? There are all sorts of uses for mental arithmetic, and mental arithmetic isn’t possible without at least rudimentary knowledge of mathematical computation. And who says there isn’t going to be something that wipes out our whole electrical grid and causes technological armageddon? The more people who know the redundant system, the fewer years it would take to recover.


  3. I agree Stephen,
    At my last placement when a student queried me on why we needed to study maths, I simply replied those who don’t understand compound interest are destined to spend a life-time paying it.




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