Teaching Math With Computers

I just happened upon this TED talk and I must say, I don’t think I have ever seen a talk that more closely mirrors my feelings on a subject.

Throughout my entire education I hated math. Even though I often found the concepts incredibly interesting (and often they even came very intuitively to me), I absolutely abhorred the manual computation. I never quite understood why I should be doing manually the things that my calculator was perfectly capable of doing for me (if not by default, with a simple TI Basic script). In fact, I found some of my best learning occurred when I ignored the sprawling computation unfolding on the blackboard, and instead spent my class time writing a calculator program to solve the problem for me. Unfortunately for me, my grades wren’t dependent on wether I understood the concepts or not, just wether I could mindlessly perform the calculations. It bothered me to no end that people who clearly had no grasp of any of the concepts (but took the time to work through enough problems that they could mindlessly reproduce the series of steps required of them) were getting better grades than me. (Im not really sure I agree with our whole grade based system either, but that is a whole other issue)

I will admit, in elementary school I also thought the same thing of basic arithmetic. “Why do I need to be able to add and multiply when my calculator can do it for me?” – Though it is true that my calculator can do basic arithmetic for me, it is (as mentioned in the talk) often times still more convenient to be able to do certain calculations mentally, especially when estimating (again, mentioned in the talk). In hindsight, I do wish I had spent more time learning this basic arithmetic rather than writing it off as I did other more complex computation, because I do find that (unlike the complex computation) it does effect me still outside of academia. (I can do it, it just frustrates me when I have to pause on some mental arithmetic that should be instant)

To be clear, I am not (nor do I think the talk was) suggesting that we completely eliminate the concept of hand computation from education. There are certain concepts that i’n sure are best understood by working them out by hand (at least at first), but our entire system is currently centered around it, and that just seems backwards… it encourages people to focus on the insignificant details, often completely missing the big picture.

I truly believe that if it wasn’t for all senseless hand computation that was shoved down my throat, not only would I now enjoy math (instead of hating it), but I would also have a far deeper and more useful understanding of it.

You can learn more at computerbasedmath.org