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Who can fix math education, and how? Your thoughts please...

Posted 9 years ago

Look familiar...?

When last did you solve a quadratic equation by hand? Probably not since school, I'm guessing. It's an open secret that maths education is way behind the times, failing to equip kids with skills they need in the real world.

As a Wolfram Community member, you may well have come across the Computer-Based Maths initiative, driven by Conrad Wolfram. For those who don't know, it's a programme designed to bring coding and computers into school maths curricula worldwide, using Wolfram technology.

And now the CBM team wants your ideas ahead of the fourth CBM Summit in London on 19-20 November. We already have Jaak Aaviksoo, Simon Peyton Jones and Raspberry Pi's Eben Upton, who spoke at the last CBM Summit in 2013. Now we'd like to hear from you...

  • Who would you like to hear speaking on this subject?
  • Do you have something you'd like to present yourself?
  • What are the most important topics that should be covered?

Think about your country and your workplace too:

  • Are there thought leaders, education revolutionaries or forward-thinking math education projects the CBM team should know about?

I'm looking forward to your comments...and maybe see you in London!

CBM Summit, London, 19-20 November

POSTED BY: Richard Asher
13 Replies

Mathematica and the Wolfram Language have several features, which if used in combination could help students better engage with mathematics.

The first of these is the notebook structure of Mathematica that allows for textual discussion and sectional grouping. Students can not only calculate something or write a program but also discuss it and relate it to the larger world. Something that looks more like an essay or paper. They have actually produced a piece of work that can be shown to friends and parents and which might be referred to in the future - not just some number that is right or wrong and has a letter grade.

The second feature is that the Wolfram Language is much closer to mathematical thinking. especially with the functional programming constructs.

I'm just reading about Grace Hopper in Walter Isaacson's book The Innovators. She was much more highly educated than I had realized and more than worthy of walking in Ada Lovelace's footsteps. When she taught mathematics at Vassar she had the girls write essays on mathematical topics - such as Stirling's formula. When she worked for Howard Aiken she wrote what was probably the first comprehensive programming manual. It contained a history of computing machinery going back to Babbage. Each day she would read aloud to Aiken the pages she had written that day, simply to test the smoothness of the writing. When developing the COBOL language she didn't hesitate to use longer descriptive names, a practice that Stephen Wolfram has followed.

Mathematica notebooks can also be exchanged and developed in collaboration, another element that is missing in conventional mathematical education.

The combination of the Wolfram Language with literate notebooks could put a better face on mathematical education.

We are a small group in Belgium thinking about our high school education system. Especially maths eductaion. As a 50 year old father I see the maths that my son (16) is getting at school is still the way It was thaught when I was his age. Why on earth this system is still in place? There is no school in Belgium with a decent maths level (dispite the PISA results). As Conrad Wolfram stated in one of his TED talks, teacher are mainly concerned about the calculation part of maths. I'm not a matematician and I even can see that it is completly wrong, why for god sake are we doing it then? So we are interested to take education to another level. I've been reading some books and an eye-opener for me was : "A Mathematician’s Lament by Paul Lockhart". The great work by Jo Boaler : ''Mathematical Mindsets". These are people that can save us from the boring lessons our kids are thaught in school today. We would like to start a school of our own and we are seeking for advice, ideas. The way to fix this math education problem is not simple. I'm a software engineer and I was always thaught to break complex problems into manageable chuncks, to look for the simplest thing that can possibly work, etc. So I was thinking in the direction of a lean educational system, which to some extend could be something like sudbury valley school massachusetts. Maybe the children could help solving the problem? Nobody is asking their opinion, I find this very strange. I'm amazed how smart they are those kids today. A simple inquiry: 'What is your favourite class in school' ? I don't think a lot of kid will reply 'maths', do you? They love visual stuff, they love technology, they love to take initiative and to be creativ and what are they thaught in school? Exactly the opposite. They need to keep quite and study like monks in the middle ages, copying the work of the great without asking any questions. I thought that Clavius of Bamberg was dead? Okay enough, maybe I'm to politically incorrect.

POSTED BY: Jan Rummens
Posted 9 years ago

It would be useful for classrooms to incorporate dynamic 3d display technology. Many kids have trouble visualizing a 3d plot on a 2d whiteboard. The teacher and kids could sweep different parameters and watch graphs update in real time.

POSTED BY: Bryan Lettner

UPDATE: We have two more confirmed speaker names to throw into the hat. These are:

Rachel Linney, Education Officer for the Irish National Council of Curriculum and Assessment. Expect big maths curriculum changes from Dublin soon enough!

Also on the speaker list is Kristian Smedlund of the Finnish National Board of Education. Computer-Based Maths has close links with Scandinavia, having run its pilot in Estonia and having also been adopted by the Fria Laroverken schools in Sweden.

POSTED BY: Richard Asher

(This post responds to a strategy for implementing CBM that RIchard posted earlier on the page)

That sounds like a good strategy. There would be three groups of students. Those who end up doing a STEM career would outnumber (by at least an order of magnitude) those who would benefit from a theoretical/abstract/philosophical approach. The third group are those not doing a STEM career (whose career path seems ignored by the traditional education). Presumably, the hope is at least, that that third group of students could actually continue doing math and science if they use modern tools (aka computers).

But education and school policies aren't set by the students (or there would be more vacation). Presumably the situation is different in different places, though some combination of government, parents, teacher's unions.

So concretely speaking, who needs to be convinced and what would need to happen?

POSTED BY: Todd Rowland

Right now the CBM team is focusing on convincing education policy-makers at government level, such as happened with our pilot in Estonia...and there will soon be news to come from Ireland! These things can tend to take a long time, however, so in the meantime it is good that CBM is making inroads with smaller 'private' schools or innovative tertiary initiatives.

African Leadership Unleashed is one such example of a new tertiary group that is using CBM technology. It also recently appointed Conrad Wolfram to its Global Advisory Council. Fria Läroverken in Sweden is another such example of a smaller school system using CBM.

POSTED BY: Richard Asher

I wish I could go to the conference in London. Sounds like fun.

Perhaps this community could contribute better to CBM by responding to specific challenges to CBM's premise. Everyone here is using a computer of some kind already, and is already using Wolfram technologies.

For instance, here's one question. Why math? It's true that completing the square is not a useful skill, but lots of school subjects are irrelevant to everyday life. Many never were relevant. The average person is more likely to be in a discussion about football than anything they learned in class. What is special about math that we need to fix it?

POSTED BY: Todd Rowland

It's true that there are probably a lot of school subjects that need fixing - I've yet to find a use for climbing up that rope in gym class!

Jokes aside, CBM is keeping its focus on math, although really that means a focus on STEM as a whole. I was discussing this with Conrad yesterday, in fact. The more 'relevant' or 'real-world' we try and make maths, the closer it gets to what we traditionally call 'engineering' or 'physics'. As that distinction blurs, maybe there is an argument that education systems should just ultimately have one subject called, for argument's sake, STEM. This would ideally make full use of computers, while at the same time bringing theoretical concepts closer to everyday, practical applications in a more integrated way through both its exercises and its assessment.

POSTED BY: Richard Asher

In addition to "engineering" and "physics" disciplines, I would also include "finance". Financial education is probably even more general than STEM disciplines since everybody uses money. In his TED talk, Conrad Wolfram clearly stated that financial problems could be the kind of real-world problems for CBM. I really like the examples of financial contexts implemented into the secondary maths from the Personal Finance Education Group.

Should maths (or CBM) be taught as a stand-alone subject at all, or should it be rather taught in the context of other disciplines like "finance", "programming", "physics", etc.?

POSTED BY: Pavlo Fesenko

If one looks at education planning generally speaking there is a lack of flexibility and a lack of planning for the future. One thing that CBM gives you is flexibility, so you could use it for economics one day and then use it for something else like blog writing the next day. To a large extent CBM incorporates planning for the future, as does anything that is truly flexible, but specifically one can point at communications with artificial intelligence (not just the potential future ones, but also the ones already in existence). It used to be that for STEM subjects, that if one had a good training in first year college courses in calculus, physics, chemistry then one could adapt throughout their career. Now that computing is a big part of the picture, this is no longer the case, and not surprisingly the education planners are struggling to keep up with the present, let alone plan for the future.

Pavlo, your suggestion of economics reminds me of Aristotle's argument for political science because all sciences rely on politics. From a pragmatic point of view, some children don't use money as much as adults do. I don't really advocate political science, but a nice mix of subjects.

POSTED BY: Todd Rowland

I'm really interested to see some of the things that come from this next CBM conference. Schools really do seem to be starting to embrace technology, so it's a great time to be revolutionizing other topics. I'd like to see more about how we can develop from Scratch to more advanced programming, it provides a great framework for students to code much more fluently. Having a large percentage of people that are taught programming principles from the start could really make a big difference in how technology advances.

Indeed so, as by all account there is a shortage of people with the right kind of advanced programming skills in the labour market. People with these skills will continue to be the employment success stories for many years to come, and it's time educators were more honest with learners about that. Maybe it is not everybody's calling - don't think it's mine! - but nonetheless learners should be keenly aware of how rewarding those skills can be in the long term

POSTED BY: Richard Asher

And Conrad was featured on the BBC on Wednesday in a segment to do with the Make It Digital campaign. This is a national initiative where all 11 year old pupils will be given a new BBC micro:bit to introduce them to coding in a friendly and engaging way. There's a good video on it here .

Especially for the summit, I think a huge discussion about how CBM would fit within current maths curriculums in schools will be really great - given that schools are now more open to embracing coding (together with these new initiatives).

POSTED BY: Joanna Crown
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