Thursday, September 06, 2012

Education - how much has math teaching changed?

I have thought of myself as somewhat mathic. I'm certainly no mathematician, but I did it well back when raptors roamed the earth. When I did another grad degree in the 90s I enjoyed my grad stats.

I've changed my mind though, now that I'm reading math blogs like Gödel’s Lost Letter and P=NP, and now that I'm seeing the 13yo cover math topics years ahead of when I did them (MN public school). I was mathic in my day, but the curve is wider now.

Math education has changed, perhaps more than most of us realize. It's likely to change a lot more. Math classes still require medieval calculators, and math exams often mandate particularly primitive calculators. Meanwhile the cost of a used iPod Touch is falling to $120, and Wolfram Algebra Course assistant sells for $1.99.

Sometime in the next few years, despite the drag of obsolete standardized testing [1], math classes will switch from primitive calculators to symbolic math software.

Times are changing.

[1] Old-fart anecdote. I grew up with Quebec provincial standardized exams. I don't know when they started, as a teen they seemed eternal. In the 1970s they still included exercises that involved logarithm table lookups. Paper logarithm tables -- what people used before slide rules. So we learned how to use paper logarithm tables (not hard) at the expense of slide rules (that was dumb). This didn't turn into much of a handicap because calculators came along, so the exams just dropped the log tables and never had to address slide rules. So these transitions are not without precedent.


Anonymous said...

It is only recently that I realized how important logarithms are in terms of *practical* mathematics. I had learned about them in school but they were just another obscure domain with new rules to learn and no applications.

Recently, I learned how they changed utterly the face of mathematics when they were invented by allowing multiplication and division to be approximated very quickly with logarithm tables (and then slide-rules). I knew about the existence of both of these things before, but hadn't ever realized just how they were used. The only shortcut for math I knew about growing up was the calculator.

Skater Bill said...

The resason for only allowing minimal calculators on math tests is that it requires the student to show that they understand the material instead of just punching it in.

The reason for looking up the log tables is that they are much more accurate than a slide rule - and - hopefully to teach some more theory. I just got rid of my 1970 copy of the CRC Math handbook with it's many digit Log/Ln/Trig tables and a lot of useful formulas.

Yes, I am a math lover. I was in heaven the year I was in 6th grade in a school that used "the new math" for teaching. It included a lot of theory on how math works and topics I had never seen before. Unfortunately for it, new math worked for me but not for a lot of other kids. see notes about it at