Mathematics - Get metaphysical, urges maths guru

15th November 2013 at 00:00
New curriculum favours creative problem-solving over sums

"Am I normal?" sounds like a question an angst-ridden teenager might pose to a close friend, a parent or even a school counsellor. But students will soon be asked to figure out the answer as part of a radical new maths curriculum that is attracting attention from around the world.

Mathematician Conrad Wolfram has been asked by the Estonian government to draw up a new probability and statistics curriculum for middle- and high-school students. His remit was to design computer-based lessons relevant to 21st-century life, with the pilot to be rolled out across 30 schools next year.

But the programme could soon be in use in classrooms across the globe: a host of other countries were following it closely, said Mr Wolfram (pictured, above), chief executive of the software firm Wolfram Research's European division.

"There's been concrete interest, and it's not necessarily from countries you would immediately guess (would be interested)," he told TES. "We've had a lot of interest from people at the top of the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) table, and from people quite far down. Fixing maths will empower students around the world."

Mr Wolfram will be taking part in the third Computer-Based Math Education Summit in New York later this month, which this year has been organised in partnership with international children's charity Unicef.

He has previously spoken passionately about promoting the use of calculators and computers in maths so that basic calculation is taken care of by machines, leaving children with more time to solve complex and interesting mathematical problems. But his new curriculum goes even further.

"We're trying to figure out real-world problems that the kids would find interesting," Mr Wolfram said. "We consider a problem by talking about it, but there's this way that we can get much further, which is we can apply maths to it. It's a great problem-solving system.

"In the first module, we ask the question: 'Am I normal?' We totally thought that would be an amusing thing for teenagers to work out. What do you mean by normal? How do you measure normal? What would be good characteristics to measure to determine normal or non-normal? If you're not normal, how do you quantify how far away you are? Maybe all the people in your class are weird in some way."

Other questions include how best to answer a multiple-choice test if you don't know any of the answers, and - the hardest of all, according to Mr Wolfram - "should I insure my laptop?" "Risk is a crucial area - it's complicated," he added.

But whatever reforms were enacted, countries should still put computers at the heart of their maths curriculum, Mr Wolfram said. "Computers do the calculation in the world outside. In education, we've banned them for most of it. If we don't replicate that inside education, we will fail. And it is failing. (Students) can't relate it to anything in life.

"It's much more exciting to teach them something that's more conceptually empowering. It allows them to tackle harder problems where the computers do the calculating."

Mike Ellicock, chief executive of UK maths charity National Numeracy, told TES: "Maths has been created over many years, but when you watch a schools maths class, it seems like it was put down in tablets of stone. We're supportive of anything that looks to shake that up. We like what Conrad is doing to make maths much more relevant to students' daily lives."

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