Let’s love computers….

Posted by Jane on May 7, 2016

I really enjoyed the first half of Wolfram’s TED talk.

The point about learners doing lots of repetitive calculations really resonated.

I can understand (from a previous task) the importance practice cementing knowledge and so freeing up the human potential to learn more.  But I have also observed long lists of calculations being used as a way of developing knowledge, connections and understanding.  And I think that this risks boring learners – especially if they don’t realise that this is what is happening and just take the long list of questions at face value as a long list of questions.

As I have experienced myself,  with computers, the learner rather than being the do-er can become the educator as they need to tell the computer how to carry out a calculation or put a calculation in and then start varying parts of it to see and understand the impact of those changes. I would hope that this potential and the shift in responsibility from simply being told how to do things (and then practice) would make learning feel like a more active process *.

I also loved the examples that Wolfram gave of the applied use of maths, such as geology and engineering. And I hoped that this was going to go onto rich examples of cross-curricula learning. But then the detailed example he gave was life insurance. Really?

Willingham was a really good balancing influence.  Especially, the points  that technology has a place in the classroom but it won’t bring about a revolution and that it needs to be thought of as a tool that will be useful for some things but not for others. And this is actually where I thought that Wolfram and Willingham were saying very similar things, though Wolfram clearly considered that computers had much more potential to bring about that revolution.  Willingham’s balance was a salutary reminder to me not to expect a silver bullet not matter how beguiling the bit of kit, or website or promotion.

And then I played on WolframAlpha, but after Desmos and Khan, I found this quite a tricky process. I found it difficult to orient myself and equally hard just to leap in. If I were to use this as a maths teacher then I would have to spend quite a bit of time thinking about how best to use it.  So in this way – and not wanting to be overly critical after only a short play – I think that more could be done to inject the site with the enthusiasm that Wolfram displayed in his TED talk.

* one of my more recent observations is the potential of teaching to make learning a very passive process, which (in many ways) is fine if the learner plays ball but can create some very tricky dynamics if they don’t. As, it seems to me, to motivate learners in this context is simply a struggle.


  1. pball1
    10 May 2016

    Good article Jane….I hear what you are saying regarding the repetitive work, but I think you will agree with me that from our experiences at the Academies, there is often little evidence that those repetitive methods have even worked.

    With regards to Wolfram’s real example, I do agree that it’s not really going to enthuse the audience but I do at least applaud the effort to link Maths with the real world!

  2. Ray
    11 May 2016

    Jane, it’s interesting to see that our views on the video are so different. Your point about working through long lists of boring questions confirms that some of the teaching we have observed is not great but I don’t think that it means that technology will solve that. The level of knowledge and engagement required to use technology is likely to be beyond the capabilities of many of the students we have observed in class.

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