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Arithmetic's days are numbered in Estonia

news | Published in TES magazine on 8 March, 2013 | By: Helen Ward

High-performing nation is first to trial computer-based maths

Teenagers in one of the top 20 high-performing countries in mathematics will be the first in the world to try out a new form of maths lesson - one without arithmetic.

Estonia has agreed to be the first country to trial computer-based maths, which aims to reduce the amount of time students spend doing calculations, allowing them to concentrate on using maths to solve real-world problems.

Conrad Wolfram, founder of computerbasedmath.org, has been campaigning for schools to adopt the approach, which he argues is more relevant and useful in today's world than learning how to solve quadratic equations.

Now the Estonian government has asked Mr Wolfram's organisation to draw up a curriculum and classroom resources for a course in statistics and probability. The trial in 30 schools will be coordinated and analysed by the University of Tartu.

Estonia is a small country with a population of fewer than 1.5 million, but it is also where Skype was developed and it is increasingly interested in how to make the most of technology. Trials are currently taking place of after-school groups that will teach children robotics and how to program computers and create apps. A separate project is trialling teaching programming to children as young as 7.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which assesses how 15-year-olds perform around the world, ranks Estonia 17th in maths, while the UK is 28th and the US is 31st. Estonia is also ranked above England in reading, coming in at 13th compared with England's 25th.

Jaak Aaviksoo, Estonian minister of education and research, said: "In the last century, we led the world in connecting classrooms to the internet. Now we want to lead the world in rethinking education in the technology-driven world."

The computer-based maths curriculum will be used to teach courses in probability and statistics to two age groups: 13-14 and 16-17.

According to Mr Wolfram, maths has four steps: posing the right question; turning the question into a mathematical formulation; calculation; and verification of the answer.

Under his model, students would no longer perform the calculation step manually, but would instead rely on computers. There would be no need to study complex mathematical formulas because technology can already process them more efficiently.

"It's interesting that the countries high up in Pisa tables are showing most interest in computer-based maths," Mr Wolfram told TES. "Estonia has gone big on computer programming already.

"It's inevitable that in the next 25 years, computer-based maths, or something like it, will be the default subject around the world, because we can't continue to justify teaching a subject that misses the mark in the real world as far as maths does at the moment.

"This is the cutting edge of research in one country... I think the time is ripe. And I think the countries that go first will get an important boost from that."

Mr Wolfram added that the UK government "seemed confused" about the role of computers.

"On one hand they want programming to be part of computer science and it would be great to intertwine that in a computer-based maths direction, so it seems a pity that at the moment the one thing they talk about all the time is long division, as if that is the pinnacle of primary maths," he said.

Mike Ellicock, chief executive of the UK campaign group National Numeracy, said computer-based maths was a "really good idea".

"We think it ties in well with our work on numeracy for all, and we're keeping a watching eye on what happens in Estonia to see how things progress," he said.


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