Conrad Wolfram, a British technologist and businessman, and founder of Computer-Based Math (www.computerbasedmath.org), defines math as consisting of 4 steps:
- Posing the right questions.
- Translating a problem from the real world into a math formulation.
- Translating the results back into the real world.
The problem with the current methods of Math education, he asserts, is that we spend 80% of the time teaching students computation (step 3), and we teach them how to do it by hand. Thus we have little time left teaching them steps 1,2 and 4.
I think Step 1 is very important and should be stressed above all the others. Posing the right questions means that the students must first understand the problem. Without this understanding it would be almost impossible to solve the problem.
I have seen too many test papers filled with all sorts of calculations but it was obvious that the student didn’t understand why he was doing those calculations. There would be an answer but it would be so obviously impractical or unrealistic and the student did not even bother reviewing his solution or asking why that was so. This is what happens when there is too much focus on computation and getting at the answer, but not enough focus on understanding and translating the results to reality.
It is like producing students who are experts at changing tires, but they will change the tires even if the problem is an oil leak or an overheated engine. They don’t know how to ask the right questions. They don’t know what the real problem is.
Wolfram proposes that we should begin teaching students at an earlier age to use computers for calculations, which can do them so much faster, more accurately, and at several more orders of difficulty. If we do that, then we have more time to focus on the other steps.
The obsession with making students calculate by hand is eating up a lot of time, and actually kills the interest of the general populace. No wonder a lot of people say “I hate Math” or “Math hates me.” They have the mistaken notion that math equals calculation instead of it being an approach to understand and solve real-world problems like “where do I invest my money so that it gives the best returns” or “which life insurance policy is most advantageous for me and my family?” or even “how do I win this poker game?”
Incidentally, I have a friend who is very good at math and also very good at poker. He was able to build his house from his winnings in poker-playing. Now, isn’t that an interesting and successful application of Mathematics?
It is understandable that in the development of math education, there was a huge focus on computation — because there weren’t any computers back then and the only way you could get to the results was to compute by hand. But that is not the case today.
A complex algebraic equation that may take several minutes or even an hour to compute by hand can be done in seconds by software like Mathematica (invented by Conrad’s brother, Stephen). Instead of teaching students the how of solving such an equation, teachers can instead focus on the why — on what it means in real world, and why it is important, and why it matters.
Wolfram also discusses one of the most common objections to this approach, which is that students must “learn the basics” first and that is why there is so much focus on computation. But what exactly do we mean by learning the basics? He comes up with this analogy.
Do people need to understand the mechanics of a car in order to learn how to drive it? Well, maybe in the early days of cars, it was necessary to have some knowledge of how an engine works and so on, because there was less automation and you had to do a lot of things manually just to even start the car.
These days, there is so much automation that you don’t even need a key to start the car, or learn manual transmission. Just push a button and step on the pedal and away you go. So now we have millions of people who can drive cars without really understanding how they work, but they know how to get from point A to point B, which is really what driving a car is all about.
With computers, we have the ability to teach our kids to handle complex mathematical equations without really doing the nitty-gritty work of solving them by hand. Instead of being disinterested or intimidated because of the long calculations, they will instead be more focused on the implications of the problem and how the results matter in real life, which is really what mathematics is all about.
Here is a video of Conrad Wolfram’s original talk back in 2010:
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.