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By Ezra Klein

Should math class be turned into computer programming class?

By Ezra Klein  | November 16, 2010; 12:07 PM ET
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Nice to have air resistance in jumping the chasm, a good example in its way. We teach physics without it simply because it's too hard to calculate.

I do think both he and Ezra are misleading when they call this computer programming. It has about as much to do with computer programming as making a PowerPoint presentation, adding numbers in Excel or writing a paper in Word. In short, none at all. Probably that's actually good!

Posted by: Hopeful9 | November 16, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Interesting, as a Computer Programmer, I buy some of his arguments; and in fact, in a math-focussed cryptography course I ended up writing a computer program to handle the heavy lifting calculations for problem sets. At the end I had piece of software that could could encrypt numbers (and thusly anything else) using RSA (it also outputted the steps to look like I did it by hand, I'm still not sure if that counts as cheating). I learned a ton that way, I aced the final, sans custom software.

Even with that experience I have pretty heavy qualms with this suggestion.

1. Being able to calculate without a computer is a valuable skill independent of the wider problems it's involved in. Splitting a check at a restaraunt, figuring out a budget or the MPG of your car, things like this aren't worth whipping out the smart phone for (and what if your battery is dead?) so learning to calculate by hand, or in ones head is vaulable.

2. The conceptualization of process is pretty critical. Thinking through a problem where you solve for implicitly teaches a lot of lessons about reason, and about how to use variables and substitution.

3. Trying to teach kids to write their own programs to teach process is going to be far harder than just teaching the damn math. Programming isn't always easy, and the time it takes to teach kids to program a problem will often take longer than teaching them to solve the program.

It should be noted, Wolfram created Mathmatica, the kind of software that would benefit financially (along with texas instruments, Mat lab, etc) from a change like this.

Posted by: chargeorge | November 16, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

I tutor middle school kids in algebra and the single biggest problem they have is abstraction, the same problem kids like me had with it 50 years ago.

Arithmetic is relatively simple because you see all the elements and learn quickly how to use them (especially if one commits the times tables to memory the old fashioned way.)

Algebra takes out a few numbers and puts in letters. And suddenly it becomes mystifying to young, literal minds just learning to understand subtlety. It takes a bit, but they eventually get the idea of algebra's substitution of symbols as abstract representation of numbers.

And that's the value of higher math for the 99% of us who will rarely use it again after education is ended. It teaches us how to think clearly, logically, abstractly, how to use Aristotle's Laws of Thought to reason validly, precisely.

This the single biggest reason for education and it's never, ever explained in these terms. You can go through 12 years or more of education and never be told that you are there really to learn how to think — on ever more complex terms as the subjects and the years pass.

Substituting a computer to do the drudge work of calculating is fine — after one has learned and mastered the process. Otherwise, you end up with what Cyril Kornbluth called "Marching Morons" in his 1950's short story. Highly worth the read.

Posted by: tomcammarata | November 16, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

I don't know how common this is, but at my son's university a course in computer programming is required for a major or minor in mathematics.

Posted by: quickj | November 16, 2010 6:16 PM | Report abuse

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