Is maths becoming ancient history?

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

Maths risks falling into educational obscurity like ancient Greek and Latin unless approaches to the subject change, according to a renowned technologist and mathematician.

Conrad Wolfram told Holyrood's Learning Through Technology conference in Edinburgh last week that the subject was "more despised than ever in the classroom" and that people around the world struggled to explain why it should be an integral part of the curriculum, even though it drove economies and was "more important than it ever has been in human history", he said.

There was a "chasm" between the maths of education and that of the real world, Mr Wolfram said, the key difference being that real-world maths used computers for almost all calculating whereas education still demanded convoluted human calculations. But those computations could be carried out in seconds by technology, allowing students to concentrate on other aspects of maths, he argued.

"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," Mr Wolfram said. "I learned Latin, I enjoyed Latin, but I'm not quite sure exactly why I learned it."

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

Mr Wolfram, who in 2010 founded computerbasedmath.org to drive a different approach to the subject, "fundamentally rejected" arguments 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.Driving is its own subject, it's different from building a car."

Mr Wolfram highlighted the importance of coding: like handwriting, he said, it was an essential skill that should be taught in primary schools. Estonia is pioneering his computer-based maths approach and, as a small country, Scotland was ideally placed to do likewise, he added.

But Allan Duncan, honorary senior lecturer in mathematics education at the University of Aberdeen, had reservations. "Much of what Wolfram says is true but I've yet to see a fully considered new curriculum from him," he said. "We have to be careful when talking about the 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 Higher-grade pupil to multiply a number by 10."

Mr Duncan added: "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?"

Robert Brice, an Edinburgh physics teacher who also runs the educational software company Go Think Learning, agreed that school and real-world maths should be brought closer together.

Many pupils quickly became overwhelmed by physics and maths in S3, he said, and took an entrenched view that they were incapable of doing these subjects. Mr Brice is developing software to help students with their calculations but said it was crucial for young people to learn the fundamentals.

Graeme Logan, strategic director of Education Scotland, said: "To face the challenges of the 21st century, each young person needs to have confidence in using mathematical skills, and Scotland needs both specialist mathematicians and a highly numerate population. Understanding the part that mathematics plays in almost all aspects of life is crucial."

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