Conrad Wolfram: Teaching kids real math with computers

One of the parents of a child I taught last year shared this with me. Here is what I think the math class should look like. Forget teaching kids computation, especially when a computer can do it faster, cheaper, and more reliably.

This classroom more closely resembles Dan Meyer’s math classroom where students are expected to formulate problems but taken to a further degree. Let’s do away with the repetitive tasks that a computer can easily do by hand, make sure all students have those devices that they need to do these repetitive tasks, and then focus on how to use the computations in the real world.



  • Janet Wees wrote:

    Pooh pooh to the Edmonton School Board who banned calculators a few years ago! And boo to those teachers who want their kids to know all their timestables when a calculator will do it faster and enable them to get into the real math – solving real-life problems and making some up themselves to apply what they know. How can we get this to happen??????

  • David Wees wrote:

    Banned calculators? Oh man, that’s messed up. “Let’s make sure our students find mathematics completely pointless and unrealistic.”

    I don’t know about how we can make it happen in the short-term, but I know that every time we convince another math teacher we make this future a bit more likely.

  • Cassandra Steele wrote:

    My name is Cassandra Steele, and I am from the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Alabama. I am in Dr. Strange’s EDM310 class. From personal experience, I know for a fact that math is not being taught the way it should. I went to a high school that only taught calculation problems. We didn’t learn a whole lot about the actual steps to solving real world problems. Even when I was in elementary school, we were constantly having multiplication tables and division tables shoved down our throats. I’m not saying these weren’t helpful, but that was the majority of what we did. We learned calculations. Not once was I exposed to math in real life situations until I got to college. Even when I was exposed to it in college, it wasn’t very much at all. Everything we turned in had to have every single step of a calculation present to even get credit for a problem. We were still required to calculate answers by hand. We weren’t allowed to bring calculators to class or use them at all. I found that we wasted a lot of time calculating problems that a calculator could easily accomplish. I’m not saying I didn’t learn a lot, but I am saying we could have covered a lot more than we did. We never learned how any of the problems we did could be applied in life. I feel that if we used less time on the calculation steps, and we used more time on the actual problems and how they can be applied, we could get so much more out of math classes. It might even make the problems easier to understand. I am not accusing any teachers of not doing their job. Teachers are just following how they were taught, and they are following what their curriculum tells them to do. I think if more students were exposed to math in everyday life, they would find math way more interesting than just pencil and paper.

    I really hope that the techniques expressed in this video begin to catch on. Math has been taught the same way to too long. We are in an age of technology. We need to utilize it, and we need to build with it. Thanks for this post. Thank you to your student’s parent who revealed this video to you. It was very informative. In two weeks, I will summarize your post and my reply on my blog. If you would like to take a look, the address is Once again, thanks for your post.

  • David Wees wrote:

    Hi Cassandra,

    I’m sorry that your experience of mathematics was like that. I have certainly not taught like that (at least not very often) in the past 6 years I’ve been a mathematics teacher. Even in my first couple of years, I always tried to focus on ways to make the math we were learning relevant, engaging, and focused on the process of problem solving, rather than the computations required to solve the problem. I’ve not always been successful.

    Thanks for sharing your experience, and unfortunately I know that it is a very common one.

  • Cassandra Steele wrote:

    I am very glad that you a trying that approach. I’m sure I would have loved your class. I like math. I was just never taught how to apply the skills we were taught. I hope that the approach catches on in other classrooms to make math more engaging.

  • I am big on using technology in the math classroom to access additional information, represent situations and complete calculations.

    Yet, I find myself conflicted with the value I have gained from having a fluency to work with math concepts and basic calculations without technology. An undercurrent of math is efficiency in developing a solution to the problem (see David’s post from earlier this week “Triangles are your friend”). Often with a little thinking their is a more efficient method than simply plugging the numbers into technology.

    However, I’m starting to think that using the technology could be a way to build those core skills of mental calculation and manipulation of concepts. First, through the application to relevant problems as discussed above. Second, some calculations result in interesting answers different then one might have projected at first glance. Encouraging students to ask and explore the question “Why did I get this answer?” might help them develop a better understanding of the concepts used to reach it.

  • This is good news for the parents and their kids that maths is a interesting subject and computer application make more interesting to learn maths. Thanks for sharing. Regards, Konrad Kafarski

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