Minimally invasive education/Arithmetic - we have to change our thinking

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“arithmetic is an outdated life skill like swordplay or horse riding.” Sugata Mitra

In his book Beyond the Hole in the Wall Mitra makes the alarming point about the future of maths education.

At the supermarket. you can't tell if the cashier knows arithmetic or not. Your groceries are scanned electronically and prices tallied automatically. Yet the cashier probably still performs his work capably. Arithmetic is an outdated life skill, like swordplay or horse riding. Four hundred years ago, these were vital skills; today they are relics of a bygone world and primarily enjoyed as sports.

Not many educators would argue that our role continues to be one where will fill our empty vessels with knowledge, yet a high proportion of our maths education seems to continue to be just that. Conrad Wolfram puts it beautifully in this Ted talk.

He breaks down maths education into 4 parts:

  • Posing the right questions
  • Real world ------> Math Formulation
  • Computation
  • Maths Formulation -----> Real World, verification

He then suggests that we stop wasting 80% of our students time on Step 3 (calculation) and instead use computers for this. This means that our students can spend more time on the more important steps (1, 2 and 4)

Wolfram argues: People confuse ... the order of the invention of the tools with the order in which they should use them for teaching. So just because paper was invented before computers, it doesn't necessarily mean you get more to the basics of the subject by using paper instead of a computer to teach mathematics.

He goes on to further argue:

it's very important to get computers in exams. And then we can ask questions, real questions, questions like, what's the best life insurance policy to get? -- real questions that people have in their everyday lives. And you see, this isn't some dumbed-down model here. This is an actual model where we can be asked to optimize what happens

Then he leaves us with a challenge: So I want to see a completely renewed, changed math curriculum built from the ground up, based on computers being there, computers that are now ubiquitous almost. Calculating machines are everywhere and will be completely everywhere in a small number of years. Now I'm not even sure if we should brand the subject as math, but what I am sure is it's the mainstream subject of the future. Let's go for it, and while we're about it, let's have a bit of fun...

This fits in very well with the MIE approach.

Let children explore mathematical concepts for themselves in a highly connected environment.

This year we have been trying this concept out (in addition to the more traditional maths programme). We have a thing called 'Problem Posing Maths' where children are required to seek out and ask questions - as opposed to barking answers (we have calculating machines for that).

For example, when teaching perimeter we deliberately give them ambiguous information. Traditionally children are given textbook questions like this which requires them only to calculate:

Trad maths quest.png

Whereas our approach looks more like this:

How big is this rectangle?.png

This way the kids have to ask and research the questions:

  • How do I measure a rectangle?
  • How do I calculate perimeter?
  • How do I calculate area?
  • How many cms in the base?
  • How many cms is the height?
  • How do I know the information I have is correct?

The calculation is therefore a small part of the activity - the problem posing is the real maths and the maths that they will do in their everyday lives. It really wouldn't matter if they used a calculator because the learning is in the problem posing...

Too often we do the learning for the kids and leave them only with something that a simple machine can do.

This will be the focus of my session at ICOT