It’s time to ‘feel’ math

Today I needed a TED Talk moment.  I selected Conrad Wolfram’s talk on “Teaching kids real math with computers” since much of my work these days seems to revolve around math.  Essentially, Wolfram describes the major disconnect between math in education and math in the real world.  Math in education is uninteresting, revolving around dumbed down, isolated calculations.  Math in the real world is exciting, leading to innovation and creation.  Wolfram proposes the use of computers as a bridge to connect math in school to math in the real world.

Wolfram reduces “math” to four steps:

  1. Asking the right questions
  2. Transforming a real problem into a math formulation
  3. Computing
  4. Transforming the math formulation back to the real world to verify the solution

He then points out that school requires students to spend ~80% of time on step three; a step that can be accomplished faster and with greater precision by a computer than by a human.  You get the point.  While this emphasis on computation was essential way back when, it is less applicable for today’s world.  And, yet again, this is an example of how our educational system fails to adapt to meet the needs (student and societal) of today.

Wolfram continues his presentation, discussing common objections to using computers to teach math.  He concludes with these two interesting points:

  1. It’s time to make math more practical and more conceptual.
  2. Using computers to teach math allows students to “play with math”, to “feel it”, to “interact with it” without getting bogged down with boring calculations.

He shared a good example – calculus.  Calculus is taught very late in education because the computations are very difficult.  However, conceptually, calculus is appropriate for younger students.  He showed a computer application that allowed the user to increase the sides of a polygon to visually see how the shape transforms into a circle.  So simple, yet so powerful!