Living through the COVID-19 pandemic requires some serious math literacy. There’s a daily dose of statistics on the number of new cases, and constant talk of “flattening the curve” of infections.
But the education system has done a terrible job preparing us to live in a world where such number crunching is more important than ever, according to Conrad Wolfram, co-founder of Wolfram Research Europe. He has a new book out this week called “The Math Fix: An Education Blueprint for the AI Age.” In it, he proposes a new way for schools and colleges to rethink everything in math education—about what even needs to be taught and why.
It may not seem like the best time to quibble about curriculum, with so much of education disrupted with the sudden shift to remote teaching. But he argues that this is exactly the right moment for fixing math. After all, the pandemic is forcing some serious reflections about what’s really essential teaching in schools and colleges. And people are taking a fresh look at the question of whether everyone is getting education fairly.
Wolfram is steeped in math tools. Wolfram Research is a powerhouse of mathematics software, making Mathematica, which is used by scientists, and Wolfram Alpha, a kind of search engine for quantitative information that they call a “computational knowledge engine.”
He says the way math is taught these days feels about as relevant as Latin.
“It seems extraordinary now, but in the 1950s, if you went to an intellectual school in the U.K. for example, a grammar school or private school, Latin took up a huge amount of your daily or weekly schedule at school,” he said. “Latin fell off a cliff because it couldn’t justify itself as a mainstream subject. And I think math has problems like that at the moment, if you’re not careful.”
For instance, he asked: “Why are we spending ages showing people how to do quadratic equations by hand” when students today need a different kind of algorithmic literacy in order to navigate a world shaped by social media giants like Facebook and Google?
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