Tuesday, 15 February 2011

What should be in a maths class?

I have recently (well, in the past two years) read two very interesting essays on the teaching of mathematics. At first glance, they seem to be almost diametrically opposed, but I tend to find myself agreeing, overall, with the thrust of both. The essays are Paul Lockhart's A Mathematician's Lament and Conrad Wolfram's TED talk on mathematical education. A couple of quotes from each which provide a brief summary.

From Wolfram's talk (trancript available here):
I want to see a completely renewed, changed math curriculum built from the ground up, based on computers being being there, computers that are now ubiquitous almost. calculating machines are everywhere and will be completely everywhere in a small number of years. Now I'm not even sure if we should brand the subject as math, but what I am sure is it's the mainstream subject of the future.
From Lockhart's Lament:
The art is not in the “truth” but in the explanation, the argument. It is the argument itself which gives the truth its context, and determines what is really being said and meant. Mathematics is the art of explanation. If you deny students the opportunity to engage in this activity— to pose their own problems, make their own conjectures and discoveries, to be wrong, to be creatively frustrated, to have an inspiration, and to cobble together their own explanations and proofs— you deny them mathematics itself. So no, I’m not complaining about the presence of facts and formulas in our mathematics classes, I’m complaining about the lack of mathematics in our mathematics classes.
So, Lockhart thinks we should be teaching mathematics as an art form, and Wolfram thinks we should be introducing more computers into mathematics lessons so that people can concentrate on doing the bits that are actually useful. Which of them is right? Well... both, but mostly Wolfram.

The question we have to ask ourselves before we can even begin to compare the two essays is why do we teach mathematics at all? So far as I can see, the only sensible justification for having mathematics as a subject that everyone in the world should be taught up to a relatively high level is because it's useful. You can't do physics, or engineering, or any sort of science, or do derivatives trading, or even decide which mortgage to get, without knowing quite a lot of mathematics. For this reason, everyone should be taught the basic mathematics that they need to know in order to do these things (or the basics they need to know in order to learn the specific maths they wnat to use).

Note that one corollary of this mode of thinking is that most of the mathematics you learn probably shouldn't be taught in a maths class. It's much easier to learn how to get from acceleration to speed than it is to learn how to differentiate a function. Yes, it is useful to then point out the possible generalisations (getting from acceleration to speed is the same as getting from jerk to acceleration) but I don't see any reason why these topics can't be introduced concretely. I personally have serious trouble doing any calculus that I can't do using physical intuition, and I think it's fair to say that I am an above-average student when it comes to learning maths. Calculus should be taught when you're doing engineering, statistics should be taught when you're analysing the results of experiments, graph theory should be taught when you're trying to solve scheduling problems.

Lockhart, on the other hand, seems to think that we should be learning mathematics because, essentially, mathematics is awesome. I happen to agree with him that mathematics is an exceptionally beautiful art form. I'm happy to sit back and bask in the glory of Cantor's diagonalisation argument, or the ingenuity of Karp's reductions between NP problems, but I'm not sure that I'm willing to contend that everyone should be forced to. Yes, if you want to be a mathematician you have to learn that mathematics is actually an art, but most people who study mathematics don't want to be mathematicians, and most people who study mathematics *shouldn't* want to be mathematicians. For these people, learning about the art of mathematics is little more than an intellectual curiosity, on a par with learning about Titian or Shakespeare.

In other words, Lockhart is right, inasmuch as we want people to study mathematics for it's own sake. Wolfram is right, inasmuch as we want people to study mathematics because it's useful.

Now, I happen to tend strongly towards the idea that the only things we should be teaching in schools are things which are potentially useful, but that obviously isn't the prevailing wisdom - everyone in this country is still forced to do an English Literature GCSE. Lockhart-style mathematics is a perfectly good substitute for art class, or critical theory. Wolfram's mathematics is a necessary prerequisite for doing just about anything else.

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