Has the math(s) brand become toxic?

Has the math(s) brand become toxic?

For once I'm not talking about the contents of school maths but the name and its associations.

The question I'm asking is if our core technical subject wasn't termed "maths" but "nicebrand" would things go better in and out of education?

Sadly, I've started to conclude the answer is yes. I now suspect that using the brand of maths is damaging core technical education, its reform, and efforts to equip society for the AI age.

Believe me, this is not the conclusion I want. I've spent years of my life somehow connected with the word "maths". But much as I might not like my conclusion, I want the essence of subject maths to succeed; so I don't want the name to kill the subject—a much worse outcome.

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Evidence: let's promote not stifle innovation in education

Evidence: let's promote not stifle innovation in education

Earlier this week I was part of a high-level discussion about maths and computer science education, how we could improve their reach and effectiveness. Rather quickly the question of  evidence came up, and its role in driving innovation.

It's taken me a few days to realise that there were actually two very different "importance of evidence" conversations--one with which I completely concur, and one with which I vehemently disagree. In the end, what I believe this exposes is a failure of many in charge of education to understand how major innovation usually happens--whether innovation in science, technology, business or education--and how "evidence" can drive effective innovation rather than stifle it. In an age of massive real-world change, the correct and rapid reflection of this in education is crucial to future curricula, their effective deployment, and achieving optimisation for the right educational outcomes.

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PISA results: Let's win on the right playing field, not lose on the wrong one

PISA results: Let's win on the right playing field, not lose on the wrong one

Today's maths PISA results are predictable in the successes that many Asian countries show and the mediocrity of many of the traditional Western countries--like the UK. 

I believe PISA is meticulous in conducting its tests and reflects a good evaluation of standards of today's maths education. And yet I think if countries like the UK simply try to climb up today's PISA assessment, they'd be doing the wrong thing.

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Excited: Raspberry Pi gets free Mathematica + Wolfram language

Excited: Raspberry Pi gets free Mathematica + Wolfram language

I was very excited at our CBM summit this morning with Eben Upton to announce that Mathematica will be bundled on the Raspberry Pi computer for free, and so will the new Wolfram Language--also announced today.

This really has at least 4-dimensions of consequence:

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Collaborating with UNICEF: next month's CBM summit on fixing world's maths

Collaborating with UNICEF: next month's CBM summit on fixing world's maths

Fixing maths education is becoming ever more central to individual life-chances and our societal needs.

So I am very pleased that we're able to collaborate with UNICEF on our 3rd CBM summit, holding it at their headquarters in New York City on November 21-22.

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Maths v. Music Education

Maths v. Music Education

I was debating Computer-Based Maths education (CBM) with a sceptic before the summer and he brought up the analogy of music education to support various claims he was making of maths.

As I understood his central point it was that practising hand calculations is akin to practising music pieces--it's simply the way to learn to play. Also there was some attempt to draw the analogy between listening to music and CBM, whereas playing was like traditional hand-calculating maths.

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Announcement: our first CBM country

Announcement: our first CBM country

I'm very excited to announce that computerbasedmath.org has found the first country ready for our completely new kind of maths education: it's Estonia. (...and here's the press release).

I thought Estonia could be first. They are very active on using technology (first to publish cabinet decisions immediately online, first to include programming in their mainstream curriculum), have ambition to improve their (already well respected) STEM aptitude and lack the dogma and resistance to change of many larger countries. There aren't so many countries with all those characteristics.

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Where does programming fit in education?

It's great that programming is coming to the fore in UK education and that this new-found enthusiasm is starting to spread to the US.

But where does programming fit with ICT, computer science and maths? How central a subject is it?

What's termed ICT seems to be "how to operate your computer...or generic applications on it...or even past computing forms like calculators". Frankly children are often good at operating the latest tech--usually better than their teachers. Primary schools need to help, verifying that they can do basic operations and offer remedial, individual help if not, but this "operating your computer" should not be a subject per se and is far from programming in subject-matter and required skillset.

What about computer science? It's the specialist subject of how you optimise programs, programming, build large-scale software or even design new programming languages. Important though this is, attaching programming only to CS is too narrow a viewpoint.

Instead, programming is much more fundamental to STEM: it's the way you communicate technical ideas and processes in the modern world. It's as central as that.

You can view it as a superset evolution of mathematical notation, far more general and with the immediate consequence of machine computable results. Programs are the way you write down maths.

And so I believe programming is an integral, core part of maths education. It's the hand-writing of technical ideas and just like hand-writing is in the early years attached to learning English (if you're in England!), so core, basic programming should be attached to maths.


To be clear, I'm not talking calligraphy, but basic hand-writing. Calligraphy is the CS end--the subject in which you study programming in its own right, its nuances, detailed optimisation. Hand-writing is the basic tool, to let everyone communicate. Just like hand-writing is more generally applied than in English, programming is more generally applicable than is today's perception of maths' applicability in schools (though not than maths' actual utility). Whether in geography, economics or science, technical problem solving needs maths and the way you write down and do anything but trivial arithmetic is with programming.

I'm not knocking the new efforts with programming. Far from it. I'm all for getting programming into education under whatever guise is easiest. If making ICT "rigourous" is the politically expedient way, starting there is fine so long as we recognise it just as the start.

It would be folly indeed if in the very country where a mathematician invented the computer and effectively the concept of programming, we should fail to see the crucial integration of programming with maths education.

(Perhaps if Alan Turing had lived longer, computer science would have been generally considered a part of maths, not a separate discipline--just like mechanics or statistics usually are today).

Should long-division be the pinnacle of primary maths education?

Many people asked me to comment on the UK government's draft primary curriculum in maths, and the Department of Education's response letter. Rather than compare computerbasedmath.org with the new curriculum, I'll instead make a few initial observations for those who've followed its ideas.

When governments talk maths, they seem intent on convolving hand-calculating with rigour, rigour with understanding, calculating with numeracy, maths with calculating, rote-procedure learning with the vital conceptual and intellectual requirements of today's real-world maths.

I read the response letter first. It fitted this mould rather too well.

Then I scanned the curriculum itself. It seemed much better. I agree with many problem-solving aspirations and indeed many of the skills cited. I like its not-too-prescriptive approach, as I understand it, giving leeway for lots of different ways to achieve the teaching outcomes including (though this is not specifically cited) basing it on technology. Yes, I'd like this to be much more radical and programming to be included as a core skill, but I understand the difficulty of hard-coding it at this stage. I also understand why there's little reference to technology on the basis that its use isn't an outcome but a highly appropriate (I'd argue essential) tool to reach the outcome--outcomes which I think could have been bolder if computers were the default assumption for calculating.

Where my support starts to diverge is with procedures for multiplying fractions (when did you last use this formally eg. 3/16 x 7/8?) and there's a gaping chasm by the time we get to long-division (ever need to use that?).


Not only are these examples mechanics-led outcomes, not problem-centric (in the end it's problems that maths is there to solve not its own mechanics), but the mechanics in question is in practice obsolete ie. it's not in use in the real world nor do I believe it empowers understanding that is.

This saps student's time, energy and motivation. But I'm concerned about a far more serious problem: the lowly government portrayal of maths.

Should placing long-division or learning your times tables really be portrayed as the pinnacle of achievement in maths at primary school? Worse still, why imply that those tedious procedures are what maths is primarily about?

This is about the worst maths marketing you can do to prospective students--and in the long term to parents. Perhaps it's a good short term vote-winner for some, like brands that consistently do special offers improving sales short-term, but it's not a good long-term strategy for building a quality image of maths in our society or one that's aspirational. It's using long-division as a badge of honour of what the government call rigour when in fact it's a prime example of mindless manual processing.

And more than ever, it presents a broadening chasm between government's view of maths and the real-world subject.

The nub of real maths isn't rote-learning procedures nor does it depend upon them. It's not calculating, but the highly challenging mathematising of ever more complex situations for a computer to calculate, de-mathematising the results and validating their worth. It's creative, applied, powers some of the most successful ideas and developments of recent centuries and can even be fun and engaging!

A useful analogy is with survival skills. In the past your life would depend on rubbing sticks together to make a fire. Now those aren't likely to be life or death. Instead basic survival is how to cross the road or  handle money. What are today's maths survival skills? What's at the pinnacle of today's maths?

Instead of rote learning long-division procedures, let's get students applying the power of calculus, picking holes in government statistics, designing a traffic system or cracking secret codes (so topical this month with Alan Turing's anniversary and his computer-based code breaking). All are possible, all train both creativity, conceptual understanding and have practical results. But they need computers to do most of the calculating--just like we do in the real world.

Examples from Wolfram Demonstrations site.

I hope these sorts of examples will all be encouraged under this new curriculum, and crucially that the assessments will highly value the skills they require, utilising computers so problems can be harder, more realistic and far more engaging.

One country will take this computer-based approach first and leapfrog others' technical education. This change will happen. The question is when not if. I worry that the UK won't be in the leading edge of this, but in so many ways it still could be.

Meanwhile, I won't be much help with my daughter's long-division homework. I've actually never learnt how to do long-division; I don't think it's disadvantaged me one iota.

P.S. Paradoxically, I would include times tables in a curriculum: they're still useful. Surrounded as I am by computers, I still find mentally hand-estimating helps me make quick judgements on information and I often do approximate multiplications to achieve that. Of course I could get my computer to do this---but for the moment, it's that bit slower. I do not think times tables give one valuable inherent understanding; but they are useful. Long-division doesn't and it isn't.

A visit from the Prime Minister

It was great to welcome David Cameron, British Prime Minister, officially to open our new Wolfram Centre in Oxfordshire, UK today.

Rather than a traditional plaque unveiling, we went virtual: an iPad button wirelessly firing off a sequence on a nearby TV, the ending "plaque" presenting live data captured at the moment of unveiling--the current weather, FTSE level, star chart and even the PM's age of 16562 days.

More seriously, we talked two topics I believe are key Britain's hi-tech role: making government data truly accessible (to citizens and government(!) alike) and resetting maths education to be computer-based--both more conceptual and more practical.

It's interesting how much the first chimed with the PM's 2010 TED talk about people empowerment in a "post bureaucratic age". It was fun showing how Wolfram|Alpha queries and interactive CDF could serve this agenda (including through Siri), and how the problem-centred approach of computerbasedmath.org might give the UK an opportunity to leapfrog other countries in STEM.

It's clear that the PM is keen to see Britain as a bold new tech and information hub, able to punch above its weight in reshaping the value-chain of knowledge, or what I've described before as the "computational knowledge economy".

In our unusual kind of way, I believe we can contribute unique facets to driving this agenda.

Computer-based math eduation summit

Just a quick posting that we had a terrific first computer-based math education summit at the Royal Institution in London. We made good progress at an early start to charting out a new direction for the world's math students both for formal curricula and for the multitide of other ways that learning takes place.

Over the coming months you'll see topics and modules showcased alongside video of discussions from the conference. We haven't worked out our full plan yet, but for something destined to take a minimum of 10 years, we're thinking it through carefully. Watch this space!