THINK DIFFERENT! Math vs. Broccoli

Reinventing Math for the Computational Knowledge Economy

According to Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, the problem with the way math is currently taught is that lessons are "siloed from one concept to the next." Khan tells Big Think that when we administer exams, "some people do well and some people don’t do well. The people who don’t do well are given labels called grades that essentially tell them how smart society thinks they are. And then everyone moves on to the next concept. People end up with gaps."
Robertshaw points out that many technologists in the education industry are attracted to software that can “intelligently” adapt when students are failing in a particular topic. While technology is a powerful tool to spot gaps, "we believe that a teacher is best able to diagnose exactly how a student is struggling," he says.
Current teaching methods are not the only challenge in math education. What about the curriculum itself?
"Do we really believe that the math that most people are actually doing in school practically today is more than applying procedures to problems they really don't understand for reasons they don't get?"
So asks Conrad Wolfram in a searing indictment of math education. Wolfram has no issue with math being taught as a compulsory subject. Math is, after all, "more important to the world today than at any point in history," he says. The problem is what we are teaching.
Wolfram breaks math down into four components:
1. Posing the right questions
2. Turning a real world problem into a math formulation
3. Computation
4. Turning a math formulation back to the real world, verifying it.
"The crazy thing," Wolfram says, is that we spend perhaps 80 percent of the time in math education teaching people to do computation by hand -- "the one step computers can do better than any human after years of practice."
So why not use computers to calculate? After all, that's the math chore we hate the most. It may have been necessary to teach this skill 50 years ago. There are certainly a few practical examples of how hand-calculation can be useful today. Wolfram cites "mental arithmetic" as one of them. And yet, thanks to the ubiquity of calculating machines, math has been transformed today, "perhaps more than any ancient subject." Math has been "liberated from calculating."
What's the Significance?
Not only are currently failing to teach proficiency in basic math skills, we are also missing out on an opportunity to teach students a much richer understanding of math. Wolfram envisions a new math curriculum that is "built from the ground up" and based on the ubiquity of calculating machines. The countries that do this best in computer-based math, he argues, will leapfrog others and develop a more advanced economy.
Wolfram describes this as a transition from what we now call the knowledge economy to "the computational knowledge economy where high-level math is integral to what everyone does."

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