The magic of maths for our future: Conrad Wolfram

The magic of maths for our future: Conrad Wolfram


Nous recently hosted renowned British mathematician, technologist and entrepreneur Conrad Wolfram at our Sydney office. Wolfram led a discussion with a number of Nous’ clients from across the education sector, exploring how mathematics education should evolve to meet the future needs of society. This article provides a brief summary of the key insights that arose from the discussion.

What does automation mean for education?

There’s no denying that automation is changing the world and shifting the realms of possibility when it comes to how we innovate and solve intractable problems. The technology at our disposal means that we think, interact with each other and learn at new levels, and at unprecedented pace. As a result, we are at a critical juncture in the way we think about education. We must consider how best to equip future generations to leverage the opportunities technology presents.

Education in its traditional form was not designed to fit the automated world we live in today. Working through a complex maths problem by hand can be argued to be frivolous when your smartphone can solve that same problem in a matter of seconds. Wolfram purports that classroom learning as it currently is cannot adequately equip students to thrive in the modern context – particularly in the realm of mathematics. Wolfram believes that governments around the world need to reconsider maths education at a system level, and reassess “what needs to be done [with maths]” in a “real world” context, to accurately determine how maths should be taught.

Maths versus computational thinking

Wolfram pitches computational thinking as a new lens through which we should consider how mathematics is taught. This means figuring out what we as humans can do with computers, and moving the dial to meet this new potential. Instead of teaching students how to solve abstract formulas and complex problems by hand, we must teach them how to efficiently solve these same problems (and bigger ones) using computers. In Wolfram’s words, computational thinking will help us to educate “first rate human problem solvers, rather than third rate human computers”.

Looking at maths education through the lens of computational thinking will also allow us to address some fundamental challenges of the future – which unchecked could significantly inhibit our progress as a global society. These include:

  • The volume of data that is becoming available and how we can sort through it to glean valuable insights
  • The technical skills that will be required to secure jobs in an ever-expanding range of fields
  • How well equipped citizens are to make intelligent decisions and logically interpret information that they are exposed to on a day-to-day basis.

In essence, Wolfram believes that computational thinking trumps traditional maths because it focusses on the value people bring to the problem solving process, and will therefore be of benefit to everyone at some level.

Raising the bar on what and how we teach

There are two things that need to be addressed in order to shift the way we think about mathematics, and achieve broader societal benefit. The first is what we teach – or rethinking the content to focus more on problem solving and computational thinking. The second is how we teach – the characteristics that will become the hallmarks of quality educators.

Traditionally, maths teachers have been expected to know their craft inside out, and be able to answer any question a student might ask. Continuing in this vein will be challenging if we are to successfully move the dial on maths education, as new knowledge will be required to achieve a systematic shift.

Wolfram believes that like governments, teachers need to circle back to what is relevant and what is possible at this moment, in order to get students on board with mathematics. He believes that a curriculum focused on solving “toy problems” by hand will neither inspire nor tap the potential in students to solve “messy, real world” problems.

To achieve this does not mean teachers will need to re-educate themselves. Like most ways of working, Wolfram believes that teaching should become an increasingly collaborative setup, where educators aren’t expected to know everything, but rather be able to work with people to ensure they maximise their own learning. In Conrad Wolfram’s world, modern maths teachers won’t need to know the answers, rather they will need to have a good idea of how to figure them out.

Our discussion with Conrad Wolfram was an exciting exploration of possibility. While he firmly believes that maths education as it is misses the mark, his ideas on how to solve the problem (backed up by the incredible capability of the Mathematica platform) are inspiring.

We are fortunate as a nation, that many of our education bodies are already thinking about how our current education system can be improved to support our future prosperity. But there’s no doubt that the task will be a challenge that requires a significant cultural shift across many levels of society, and commitment that is aligned from government through to the classroom. We should try to adopt Wolfram’s line of thinking beyond just maths education to examine the system more broadly, and boldly imagine where the future could take us with a fresh approach. This is a call to action and we should step forward in the interests of young people of today, to ensure they are prepared for tomorrow.

Get in touch to find out how Nous can help progress the maths agenda in your jurisdiction.