21st Century Math: The Movie

By Keith Devlin

All my Devlin’s Angle posts this year so far have studied the dramatic shift that took place over the past twenty-five years in the way professional mathematicians “do the math” in order to solve real-world problems. There have been parallel changes in the way pure mathematicians work as well, but those changes are somewhat less visible, and not as dramatic. In any case, I have been focusing on mathematics in the wild.

Those changes in how math is done have put pressure on global education systems to catch up. In previous posts, I addressed these changing educational needs, but overall, there has been a considerable lag. In the United States, many of the better, selective, private schools have adjusted, but little has changed in the math classrooms of most state-funded schools. There are a number of reasons for that lack of action, some educationally valid, others resulting from Americans’ proclivity to treat mathematics education as a political football. But that is another story.

The fact is, however, the mathematical world has changed significantly, it is not going to change back, and sooner or later the educational system must catch up. Hopefully sooner, given that today’s students will enter a world and a workforce where no one does calculations anymore – where by “calculation” I mean performing any form of algorithmic procedure.

In May, I participated in Maths for the 21st Century, a global mathematics education summit in Geneva, Switzerland, organized to discuss the new way mathematics is being done and how best to prepare students to live and work in such a world. Both the United States Department of Education and the OECD’s (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s) PISA educational testing organization were represented at the summit.

The half hour talk I gave at the summit is in many ways a summary (absent all the details) of my series of posts for the MAA. So I thought I would wrap up the series, at least for now, by pointing you to the video of my presentation. The main summit page, linked above, also provides a link to a lightly abridged PDF version of the deck I used to accompany my talk.

My experience in giving public talks on this topic over the past several years has been that it evokes two very different reactions. Engineers and scientists in the audience, for the most part, nod along in agreement with everything I say. I am, after all, just describing the way they have been working for twenty years. In contrast, teachers, or at least a great many of them, often show surprise, confusion, and not infrequently hostility. Many parents react similarly.

Why is that? Well, to repeat an arguably over-used quotation from the great Paul Newman movie Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is failure to communicate.” After my talks, I am often left feeling like the Paul Newman character, Luke, in that clip. However, for the analogy to work, Luke has to represent not me but the entire mathematics community.

Teachers are taken aback to be told that calculation is less relevant in today’s world. I believe this is because no one in the mathematics business – that is, the business of using mathematics to solve real-world problems – has taken the trouble to inform teachers that the entire game has changed, and in what ways. It’s time we bring better communication to this issue. My series of Devlin’s Angle posts this year is one of my latest attempts to do just that. The Geneva video I am directing you to is another.

Read the Devlin’s Angle archive.