(CBM) in 2010 to promote the use of computers in teaching the subject. His brother Stephen, meanwhile, created the popular Mathematica software. According to Conrad: "People know there is something called maths that is important. And yet we have this subject in schools that everybody thought was the subject but it isn't. It's disconnected."
Wolfram burst into the public eye more than three years ago with a TED talk that has since been viewed nearly 900,000 times. The essence of the talk is that although maths requires a combination of problem formulation, abstraction, calculating and communicating, schools remain steadfastly focused on calculating. The alternative is to teach mathematical thinking and hand the drudge work to computers.
"You've got to get rid of the crud that people don't need. Let's assume you have a computer, like you will in real life," Wolfram says. To demonstrate the ease with which computers calculate, Wolfram pulls out his iPhone and asks Siri - Apple's voice-activated digital assistant - to calculate an equation, which it happily does. "So why are we just teaching calculation?" he asks.
Fight for survival
Wolfram sees uncanny parallels between traditional approaches to teaching maths and subjects like Classics. When people stopped needing Greek and Latin in everyday life, schools continued to teach Classics, but as a proxy for learning English grammar. "With maths there is a real-world subject but what we are teaching is a proxy," Wolfram says. "The proxy isn't working that well. People hate calculating. They don't understand what they are doing.
"My argument to mathematicians who oppose this is: if you stick with your current subject it will turn into Classics. Because in the end you can't justify spending billions of dollars a year around the world teaching a subject that basically nobody is using. It will not survive as a general- purpose subject."
So what needs to be done? Wolfram believes there are two choices: "Essentially a new subject starts to replace maths, or we change maths into the subject it ought to be. In one way or another it's got to match the real world."
According to Wolfram, categories of algebra and geometry are not the "real subjects" any longer. "Today's maths is a proxy for real maths. We have real subjects. Why are we not teaching them? Why not start from a problem you want to solve or a kid wants to solve, and use maths as a tool to help?"
Wolfram is fond of quoting the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who once praised Mathematica as something that would "revolutionise the teaching and learning of maths by focusing on the prose of mathematics without getting lost in the grammar".
What might a new maths curriculum include? CBM has a list that includes: "mathematical thinking; everyday maths; finding patterns in information; knowing where you are in space; mathematics in the natural world; mathematics in technology; winning; and money maths".
Wolfram's approach has attracted many supporters, notably the government of Estonia: TES reported in March how officials had invited CBM to bring newly designed statistics courses to the nation's schools. Jaak Aaviksoo, Estonia's minister for education and research, says: "We believe in the enthusiasm and potential of the internet generation - they are ready for computer-based mathematics. It will also give them a competitive advantage in the labour market."
However, computer-based maths teaching has its share of critics. Traditionalists include parents, teachers and educators who staunchly support training students how to calculate because they believe it is the foundation of maths understanding. Another important issue is whether those with traditional training will be able to teach the new approach. Finally, and most seriously, the educational assessment community has not signed on yet. Assessment providers are organised to measure calculating skills and maths content as a body of knowledge, not the open-ended understanding Wolfram espouses.
The latter describes CBM as a multidimensional "helix" that includes abilities such as the confidence to tackle new problems, abstraction, and planning and managing computations - not to mention "an instinctive feel for maths". Mapping these goals to traditional assessment outcomes will not be simple, Wolfram admits. Moreover, school leaders believe that they have to teach to the standard tests.
Some assessing agencies are starting to recognise the issue. "The problem is that we assess facts and not procedures. If you want to assess critical thinking you have to teach critical thinking," says Helen Eccles, director of development at Cambridge International Examinations.
Yet change is always a challenge. Because of the multitude of obstacles, Wolfram has set a 25-year time frame to put maths on a new track for the real world. "I know this won't be easy, that's why I've dedicated my life to it," he says.
Stuart Gannes is a US-based education journalist and president of the Fab Foundation.