Not long ago, I watched this TED Talk by Conrad Wolfram, creator of WolframAlpha, on the teaching of mathematics. In this video, Conrad discusses the use of computers in teaching math and how they can be utilized to shift the emphasis from computation to problem solving in the real world.
Shortly after that, I came across Mike Gwaltney’s blog post on Democratizing Knowledge titled “Math is Dead. Long Live Mathematics!” Don’t be shy, you should go there and read it. But first, think about this…
Math History is Dead. Love Live Mathematics History!
Whenever you hear or see the word “computation” in the TED Talk or in Mike’s post, replace it in your mind with “fact memorization.” Whenever you see or hear “math” or “mathematics,” replace it with “history.” While every substitute doesn’t work perfectly, I think it is worth discussing the parallels. In history, computers would not be used for computation, but rather to look up historical facts.
Please note that I’m not saying we should throw the memorization of historical facts completely out the window. I believe there should be a balance between knowing certain facts and being able to do analysis. After all, things like the Gettysburg Address and the Diary of Anne Frank (or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) make less sense if you don’t understand the facts and the context surrounding them. Rather, I would like to have a conversation on the idea of how much we should shift the approach to teaching history if, through technology, students have much easier access to the facts than in the past.
So what do you think? Do you feel it is fair to substitute fact memorization for computation? Do you feel there is a better substitute in the field of history? Perhaps this idea parallels another substitution in a different discipline. What are your thoughts?