The Math(s) Fix wants you to believe that computers are coming for your math.
Scary, isn’t it? You should find it scary. Computers are way better at calculating than we are, yet we insist that “real math” means learning how to do long division by hand!
Wolfram Media kindly provided me an eARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for this review. I was definitely very interested in this.
Some positionality, because even though this review is not about me, my perspective informed my reaction to the book. I am a math and English teacher. I have taught high school in the UK, and I currently teach high school to adult students in Ontario who need their diploma. I have 7 years of intimate experience with how the math curriculum and our wider system of educating and assessing students fails them. My current position allows me a lot of latitude that I wouldn’t necessarily have if I had to answer to parents, so I’ve had the enjoyment of doing things like going gradeless. A lot of what Wolfram suggests in The Math(s) Fix aligns with what I am already doing or planning to do in my classroom—however, as he points out, teachers alone cannot implement this fix. For this reason, I am a proponent of radical change to all levels of our education system.
But what if you’re not? What if you’re someone who doesn’t know much about our current education system? You’ve been out of school for years. Maybe you’re a parent, maybe not. Will this book convince you that Wolfram is right, that there is a problem and he has the right solution? I hope so. I really hope so.
Here’s what you need to know about this book.
First, it’s not a math book. It’s not an education book. It’s not a policy book. There are no advanced equations in here. You don’t need anything beyond your basic education to read this. Wolfram also doesn’t delve too deeply into theory of pedagogy here (he brushes up against it, at times, but nothing that’s too hard to follow). Similarly, Wolfram keeps the aim of the book general enough, in terms of policy changes, to apply to any jurisdiction and any scale—local, regional, national. If you’re wondering, “Does this book apply to me, to my children, to my school, to my board or authority?” the answer is “Yes.”
Second, this is a book about the necessity of unity mathematics as a school subject with computational thinking, but it is not about how we should replace educators with computers, and if that’s the reading you take away from this, go back and read it again. I’ll admit I was skeptical as all-get-out when I saw who had written this. Indubitably Conrad Wolfram is qualified to speak on this subject, but would The Math(s) Fix just be a thinly-veiled advertisement for Wolfram products in schools? It’s unavoidable that Wolfram’s companies would benefit from the shift he outlines here, and he acknowledges this. Yet the arguments he makes for the necessity of this shift are persuasive and have nothing to do with the Wolfram bottom line. Moreover, Wolfram recognizes—indeed, is intimately familiar with—the limitations of computer-based math. At one point he condemns people who interpret calls for CBM to mean “computer-based assessments.” He argues that computers can help with the organization and presentation of material, that computers can help with computation, but that at the end of the day, both qualitative and quantitative assessments are best left to human educators. This is true even for quantitative assessments, because it is hard to quantify problem-solving. Which brings me to …
Third, this book clearly defines what math is and is not—or rather, what math has become in schools versus what it should be. One of the first things I say to my new math class full of anxious adult learners traumatized by their years of failing to do math in high school? “This,” I hold up my phone calculator, “is not math.” I proceed to explain how math is not “doing calculations,” because we have computers for that. I explain to them that real math is about creatively solving problems. And then I try, in eight weeks, 110 hours, to somehow undo as much of the years and years of abuse they’ve endured at the hands of our industrialized education system.
Don’t get me wrong: Ontario probably has one of the best math curricula out there. Yet I still want to tear it up and start fresh, because I think our whole approach is fundamentally backwards and obsolete in the world of computation.
Wolfram is very passionate about this change. He explains why this is not something we teachers can tackle alone. We need politicians, parents, and basically everyone else on board too—after all, this affects everyone. The Math(s) Fix is impeccably organized in such a way to lead you through the problem, the solution, and counterarguments to those who think this is unnecessary or unworkable.
What’s missing from The Math(s) Fix is probably a patina of prosaic writing. Wolfram admits he has shortcomings in this area. The arguments are logical, and the rhetoric itself isn’t bad. Yet despite his frequent references to experiences with his daughter, not to mention his own days learning defunct subjects like Latin, Wolfram is not great with the emotional appeals. As a reader, I definitely value these elements of a manifesto. There are others who have made similar arguments in more accessible, emotionally-intelligent ways. And there will hopefully be more to come. Wolfram himself acknowledges that this book cannot be the beginning nor the end of this movement for a new “core computational subject,” as he calls it.
So here’s my evaluation and my recommendation: The Math(s) Fix should be read by anyone with a strong interest in education policy, reform, or decision-making at any level. If you are a school board trustee, an educator, a politician … this book is for you. If you are a member of the general public and you feel like you have the stamina to wade through a book that is not at all math-heavy but definitely logic-encumbered then I’d recommend this book to you as well. If you want a book that makes a plea based more on anecdotes or broader social data, then you won’t find that here (and that’s ok). The Math(s) Fix is an important, well-presented addition to what is one of the most crucial conversations of our age. We are either going to get ahead of the computational revolution or we are going to do our children a disservice.
Will you contribute to the fix?
Hook me up with more education reform reads in the comments!