Technology + freedom = magnificent maths

8th April 2011 at 01:00

Professor Michael Green and his daughter need struggle no longer over their numbers ("Stephen Hawking's successor demands changes to formula for maths and physics teaching", 25 March). A solution already exists to the "drudgery" and "boredom" of learning basic maths.

Professor Green was right to say we need a better way of communicating the wonder of maths. It is a marvel of human achievement, but few young people ever get a hint of this.

This is partly because children get such a tiny slice of maths - one that can be practised and assessed with pencil and paper. These are static technologies. Nothing moves.

But consider the brilliant breakthrough of Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, who, with a few characters and symbols, developed a notation for calculus that allowed mathematicians to think about change in new ways and express deep regularities of nature.

All this is wonderful for mathematicians, and for scientists and engineers. But it can be daunting for young learners. You must learn scales to play the piano. But it makes no sense to play only scales and never the music.

We need a way to engage people with the really big ideas of maths, like algebra and calculus, but without them first having to become proficient at the procedures.

Such a way exists - digital technology. It brings maths to life. Programming languages like Logo and Scratch allow children to work on robotics and create interactive games, music and stories. There are computer algebra systems that have transformed university teaching, and statistical packages like Fathom.

And my colleagues and I at the Technology Enhanced Learning programme are developing MiGen, a specialist system to help people learn algebra. It helps them go beyond patterns to grasp the real relevance of mathematical rules and generalisations, and to move from the specific to the general - an essential skill.

Unless more schools seize the technological moment, many young people will continue to hate learning about a subject that could teach them how to think the unthinkable.

Richard Noss, Professor of mathematics education, London University's Institute of Education, and director of the Technology Enhanced Learning programme.

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