I spent yesterday at the Learning without Frontiers conference in London. A very exciting experience, not only because it is my first time in London, but also because I listened to some very provocative speakers. I am feeling very inspired to disrupt the ways schools operate today and be part of creating a learning environment that is engaging, different, and technology driven.
From Noam Chomsky discussing how teachers should be inspiring students to learn on their own, to Graham Brown-Martin reminding us that technology is fun, messy, and exciting, to Ray Kurzweil pointing out that information technology doubles every 11 months and it is our responsibility to support students’ changing passions and ideas, it has been a barrage of ideas and thought-provoking experiences.
Jaron Lanier planted the seed of letting students become what they are studying through the technology of avatars. Ellen MacArthur brought me to tears with her passion for sailing that led to her passion for systemic redesign of our world and education to manage our finite resources. And let’s not forget that I built a duck out of Lego blocks to demonstrate Jacob Kragh’s point that learning should be playful and involve all the senses!!
There were many more speakers yesterday and many more inspirational moments for me, but I wanted to focus on just one for the rest of this post— Conrad Wolfram.
Since he spoke about math, I was especially intrigued. And I agreed with all that he said— that maths (as they say in the UK) is important, it is beautiful, and is about the real-world, modeling and creativity. More importantly, maths is not calculating— it is so much more than calculating, and yet we spend 80% of our time teaching students computation rather than focusing on asking the right questions, real-world verification, and math formulation. Think about how much time we spend getting kids to memorize and regurgitate math algorithms and facts so they can pass a test, and never asking them why that math matters.
Computers, according to Wolfram, are the best thing that’s happened to maths, because they allow students to go beyond computation to experience more and different maths that were off limits before technology let us go beyond doing things by hand. (You can hear Wolfram present his ideas in this TED talk.)
And yet… here we are, focused on computation, rather than using the computers we have to explore and create real-world applications and experiences with maths. My favorite line from Wolfram: “It’s NOT great that the computer can show students how to solve an equation by hand. The computer should be solving the equation and the student should be investigating why we need the equation in the first place”.
That line has been rolling around in my head since last night, and I think I have a perfect example of what Wolfram means. View the two videos below that demonstrate the difference between using computers simply to teach algorithms for computation versus using computers to do the computational work so that the focus is on a much deeper understanding of the meaning BEHIND the algorithms.
(1) Using the computer to teach an algebra algorithm, in this case how to calculate slope:
(2) Using the computer to go beyond computation, in this case to develop an understanding of slope (and algebra more generally):
Let’s start using technology to teach DIFFERENTLY and disrupt the status quo of traditional methods. Let’s embrace technology’s ability to go beyond computation to actual thinking.