Moving Math from Analog to Digital

Jul 3, 2009 by

Arthur Benjamin has been on TED in the past (see Mathemagics) and has done a really phenomenal job.

Here’s his latest 3-minute appearance, called “A Formula for Changing Math Education.”

The problem is that the very short talk does not present a “formula” for changing education, just Benjamin’s idea that the pinnacle at the top of the math pyramid should be statistics instead of calculus. There is nothing in the the short talk that suggests any kind of coherent plan for how it could be done, or even a suggestion that he has a plan. That’s what I would want to know about. Of course, it’s only a 3-minute talk and it’s certainly possible that he had nothing to do with the name of the talk.

I did agree with these two statements, but want to add my own two cents:

1. “very few people actually use calculus in a conscious meaningful way in their day to day lives” … but I’m not sure we teach people how to use calculus in a “conscious meaningful way” nor are many of us required to use calculus for the simple reason that our superiors don’t understand it at all. Calculus could be used in a “conscious meaningful way” but our society chooses not to engage. As a matter of fact, very few people actually use statistics in a conscious meaningful way in their day to day lives. Enough said.

2. “it’s time for our mathematics to change from analog to digital” … here I agree, kind of. It’s time for our mathematics to include both analog and digital, and it’s definitely time for our mathematics teaching to change from analog to digital. What happens in most math classrooms is based on a factory-model of education that developed before computers even existed. Even though the world has changed, the instruction (for the most part) has not.

I found it more interesting to read through the comments that followed the short TED talk. There is an interesting conversation taking place there. One wise commenter pointed out that it’s possible that there should not be just one pinnacle on the math pyramid. Both Calculus and Statistics could be considered penultimate goals of a mathematics education. I think that’s dead-on.

If there’s anything I’ve learned during the process of writing my dissertation, it’s that the system of collegiate mathematics education is extremely complex.  There will be no “easy” fix to the system, even if someone is able to convince a majority of the stakeholders that their change is the correct one.

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  1. j edward ladenburger

    good grief … I’ll go look at the comment thread, but you need calculus to develop statistics — his comment is almost like opening a discrete vs continuous battle in mathematics and I frankly think it quite silly to stress one in favor of another when discussing a general math curriculum “for all” …

  2. I think of all those English and history majors who have to take a math course and take calculus because that’s what the thing to do is. Then later in life they say things like, “I hated calculus in college” or “What was any of that calculus good for?”

    Not to say that calculus instruction couldn’t be improved to avoid students saying things like that down the road, but I think statistics lends itself more readily to applications that have some relevance to students’ lives and careers.

    In my everyday life, I find myself interpreting events through the lens of statistics far more often than I do through the lens of calculus. I think that stats lens helps me understand how things work, and I would want my students to benefit from that lens.

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