(snapshot of my white board in my Toronto office)
I loved math in grade one and grade two then hated it in high school and then loved it again in my final year of high school. I have a University degree in Mathematics. How do you go from loving something and then hating it and then loving it again? Sounds like some complicated European existential movie from the sixties. This one has a happy ending however.
Most people do not like math because it is boring or too hard and what is the point of this nonsense anyway. They are right, I felt that way. But why is this?
Because: the type of math that is taught is boring. Education only focuses on the boring math and not on the cool math. Even worse it is a required subject because it is deemed important. It is like being forced to eat dog food. Some people like it but most do not.
My daughter once had to learn “long division” at school. She is like “ok pa since you are the math guy explain this to me.” I am like where is your iPhone so we can just use the calculator app and then you can do more fun stuff like proving that there are an infinite number of primes. “Mom? Pa is not helping.”
Why teach kids stuff that a computer can do a gazillion times faster? Talk about a waste of time and effort on teaching kids to have an inferiority complex towards the computer. Wow teachers promise that one day you might be as smart as a computer! Truth in fact is that computers are one of the dumbest things we have created. Other things come to mind as well of course. Computers are fast and consistent and that is the whole point. But we control them, we instruct them what to do and yes sometimes they surprise us but we can always “pull the plug.” Don’t get me wrong: I love computers but they are just speedy obedient pets. They are a wonderful tool. More importantly computers that do boring math can enlighten people to appreciate cool math.
When my family moved to Geneva I entered grade one and didn’t speak a word of French. The math part was cool. We were taught set theory through Venn diagrams and we were doing addition in base two. Yes the binary system not the decimal one! When I came home and showed my parents this stuff they were like, this is what they teach you? Yeah mom it’s cool we get to draw overlapping circles and do stuff you do not understand. This style of teaching math was influenced by the great Swiss philosopher Jean Piaget. He was a neighbor of some sorts. We used to spot him on his bike wearing a béret basque and smoking a pipe.
« C’est qui ce vieux sur son vélo avec une pipe au bec? C’est un génie on m‘a dit. »
I asked and my friend replied.
(Jean Piaget on his bike (top) and smoking a pipe (bottom))
It all went downhill from there math-wise for me in the higher grades. We were taught multiplication tables, long division, etc. etc. Boring. I lost interest in math all together. In grade nine I almost failed because of math. Yes back then they failed students and you had to redo the entire year. Wow that was a wakeup call. I actually paid attention and passed that year. I still found math boring though.
Then my older brother who never failed anything said come on Jos you should learn how to program a computer. You will get a well-paid summer job. It will pay for all your oil paints and airbrush supplies. All right all right. It was terrible at first because I couldn’t type on a keyboard. The patois was BASIC and everything ran on a terminal connected to some main frame computer located in the old town of Geneva near the roman ruins. After all the typing, the program runs and I get a series of random numbers. I come home and tell my brother that this stuff is not for me. He then showed me a program he worked on in FORTRAN that computed the digits of pi using polygonal approximations of the circle. He also wrote his own multiplication, addition, etc., in arbitrary precision. That was an epiphany for me. Computing pi with geometric figures and letting the computer do all the boring stuff so you can focus on the cool stuff. Ok bro you got me hooked. And I was. The rest is history. I was also very lucky to have a great math teacher in my final year of high school. He taught us about proof by induction, differential equations, complex numbers, and different ways to define the exponential from completely different points of view. I was back in grade one doing cool math! And my marks in math were the highest in the class. I was thinking: this cannot be true I am actually good at math.
I apologize for the somewhat lengthy narcissistic rant. But that is my story just to give some context.
Rhetorical question: do tech companies want to hire people who are good at something that computers can do way faster or do they want to hire a person who can solve problems using computers?
Here is a great TED talk by Conrad Wolfram:
At first I thought they misspelled his first name. That should be Stephen as in the brain behind the Mathematica software. And he looks younger! Duh Conrad is Stephen’s little brother.
As an aside.
The way foreign languages are taught in school is also flawed I think. Too much focus on rules like grammar. I was told if you like math you will love grammar. To me grammar is just an arbitrary system that tries to make sense of this irrational thing called a language. The best way to learn a foreign language is to immerse oneself into a culture/country that speaks that language. That is how I learned Dutch, French and English. German and Finnish on the other hand I learned through formal classes, I do not consider myself fluent in those two languages.
In Geneva which is in the French speaking part of Switzerland students are required to take German classes from an early age. I can say that some people after nine years of German could not put a sentence together. Had they spent one year in the German part of Switzerland interacting with locals they would have been fluent. The same is true in Canada. In the English part of the country people have mandatory French classes but very few can fluently speak French.