Conrad Wolfram – Maths Reimagined

Conrad Wolfram, Founder of Wolfram Research Europe and Computer Based Maths, tells me that we spend around 21,000 average student lifetimes per year teaching the wrong thing in school and calling it mathematics. “Maths” he tells me, “is taught as if it were a dead language”, and I have to say from my own experience that I agree with him.


In my mind school maths, like its stablemate science, has what a marketeer might call “poor brand value”. When I was a kid, before health and safety were invented, science was something I did when grown-ups weren’t around, when I wasn’t supervised. They had something at my school called science but it wasn’t the kind of adventures that I was having making discoveries of my own. Unbeknownst to my parents I was experimenting with gunpowder, making fireworks, taking apart engines and electronics to see how they worked, making new ones, playing with all manner of chemical reactions. It was a childhood of self-directed discovery driven by my own curiosity and a boyhood fascination with how the world worked. The kind of things I called science as a child would probably get you arrested today.


Maths, I found out much later in life, is also something of beauty and of discovery rather than the kind of parroting of times tables and remembering of formulae to solve abstract questions that had made me and the majority of my peers disengage from the subject. I only re-engaged with maths as result of becoming inspired in the creation of digital music and art but even then I wasn’t really aware that I was “doing maths”.


The siloing of maths and other disciplines is what sucks the joy, discovery and relevance out of them. The lack of application to something that I had an interest in, that excited me or had relevance to a problem I wanted to solve meant that I missed out on the adventures that could be had within the world of maths.


Conrad, through initiatives like Computer Based Maths, seeks to transform the way in which our young people engage with mathematics. He suggests that kids in school spend 80% of their time concentrating, and more importantly being tested, on the wrong thing – calculating. Arguing that computers are much faster at calculating than people he proposes that we allow kids to develop more useful skills around defining and solving problems where computational tools are available to them.


It may be, of course, that we cling onto the notion of maths as calculating because it makes it easier to measure when it comes to testing but one has to ask whether such tests have any relevance to the real world or tell us anything useful about the student.


In my interview with Conrad he tells me:


I think what’s often happened in maths is they’ve used the technology to try and replace the teacher with the wrong subject, and it’s failed. Maths is a system. In fact, you could argue it’s the best system of logical problem solving that the humans have ever invented.


That hasn’t got across to people. They see these abstract procedures that they have to apply. They don’t relate to the real world. The abstraction, I think, makes them fearful of it. They don’t understand it in many cases. Therefore, they don’t like it. They don’t do well at it. In fact, indeed the teachers don’t understand why they’re teaching it either.


gbm-faceGraham Brown-Martin is the founder of Learning Without Frontiers (LWF), a global think tank that brought together renowned educators, technologists and creatives to share provocative and challenging ideas about the future of learning. He left LWF in 2013 to pursue new programmes and ideas to transform the way we learn, teach and live. His book, Learning {Re}imagined was recently published by Bloomsbury/WISE and is available now.