I recently stumbled across these very interesting words from Keith Devlin (British mathematician and popular science writer) in an interview with Jordan Shapiro (Forbes). Devlin’s current research is focused on the use of different media to teach and communicate mathematics to diverse audiences.
Moving from applying procedures to problem solving:
To most people, mathematics means applying standard techniques to solve well defined problems with unique right answers. They have good reason to think that. Until the end of the 19th Century, that’s exactly what it did mean! But with the rise of the modern science and technology era, the need for mathematics started to change. By and large, most people outside mathematics did not experience the change until the rapid growth of the digital age in the last twenty years. With cheap, ubiquitous computing devices that can do all of the procedural mathematics faster and more accurate than any human, no one who wants – or wants to keep – a good job can now ignore that shift from the old “application of known procedures” to new emphasis on creative problem solving.
Mathematics education is stuck in the 19th century:
When today’s parents were going through the schools, the main focus in mathematics was on mastery of a collection of standard procedures for solving well-defined problems that have unique right answers. If you did well at that, you were pretty well guaranteed a good job. Learning mathematics had been that way for several thousand years. Math textbooks were essentially recipe books. Now all those math recipes have been coded into devices, some of which we carry round in our pockets. Suddenly, in a single generation, mastery of the procedural math skills that had ruled supreme for three thousand years has become largely irrelevant. Students don’t need to train themselves to do long computations, as was necessary when I was a child. No one calculates that way any more!
Today’s mathematics students need creative problem solving skills:
It’s still the case that math gets you jobs, but the skill that is in great demand today, and will continue to grow, is the ability to take a novel problem, possibly not well-defined, and likely not having a single “right” answer, and make progress on it, in some cases (but not all!) “solving” it (whatever that turns out to mean). The problems we need mathermatics for today come in a messy, real-world context, and part of making progress is to figure out just what you need from that context.
Read more here: 5 Things You Need To Know About The Future Of Math – Forbes.