How to stop maths from becoming ancient history

9th May 2014 at 01:00
Overhaul subject to save it from fate of Classics, technologist says

Maths could succumb to the same fate as ancient Greek and Latin and fall into educational obscurity unless approaches to the subject change dramatically, according to a renowned technologist and mathematician.

Maths was "more despised than ever in the classroom", Conrad Wolfram said, and people around the world were struggling to explain why it should be an integral part of the curriculum, even though it drove economies. It was "more important than it ever has been in human history", he added.

There was a "chasm" between educational maths and the real world, warned Mr Wolfram, who argued that children should do more basic maths on computers, freeing up time for studying more interesting mathematical concepts.

"Today's maths is very much a proxy for the real maths we should be teaching, and there's a subject where this happened before - it's called Classics," he told a conference on learning through technology in Edinburgh last week. "I learned Latin, I enjoyed Latin, but I'm not quite sure exactly why I learned it."

Without fundamental change, he said, "the subject of maths and the real-world subject will so diverge that we simply won't be able to justify maths as a mainstream subject. It will turn into Classics or even ancient Greek".

Mr Wolfram, who in 2010 founded to drive a different approach to the subject, "fundamentally rejected" the argument that pupils should master basic calculation before using a computer. "It's like saying before you drive a car you have to learn how to cast a cylinder head for an engine," he said.

Mr Wolfram, whose 2010 TED talk on teaching "real" maths with computers has been viewed more than a million times, also talked up computer coding: like handwriting, it was an essential skill that should be taught in primary schools, he said.

"Much of what Wolfram says is true, but I've yet to see a fully considered new curriculum from him," said Allan Duncan, a University of Aberdeen honorary senior lecturer in maths education. "We have to be careful when talking about use of technology. It can be either positive or negative depending on how it is used. I have seen technology motivate and inspire children to do amazing work in mathematics. I have also seen it used by a pupil to multiply a number by 10.

"Wolfram can still do mental calculation, presumably efficiently. Could he do this if he hadn't been taught how to? What calculation is he suggesting be removed from the curriculum and be done by computers? At what point in a child's education should his ideas be started?"

Mr Duncan said most teachers already used computers and other technology to assist their teaching. He called on Mr Wolfram to be more explicit on what would replace the "80 per cent of the maths curriculum which he thinks is a waste of time".

Robert Brice, a physics teacher who runs educational software company Go Think Learning, agreed that there was a need to bring school and real-world maths closer together. Many pupils quickly became overwhelmed by physics and maths early on, he said, which led to an entrenched view that they were incapable of doing these subjects.

Meanwhile, in the world of Classics teaching, educators working to promote ancient languages added that it was "a myth" that it was more difficult to make subjects such as Latin and Greek relevant and interesting to pupils.

Lorna Robinson, director of the Iris Project, which aims to open up access to ancient languages and culture for inner-city schools and communities, said: "It is possible that in the past Classics [was] taught in a way that was not very accessible and relevant." She added that the people she encountered through her work were "clamouring" to learn Classics.

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