Déjà Vu, All Over Again
By Keith Devlin
I gave a short course at a local high school recently. Three days in a row, two hours a day, to fifteen students. To my mind, it was a huge success. By the end of the course, the students had successfully reverse-engineered UPS’s core routing/scheduling algorithm. In fact, they spent the last half hour brainstorming how UPS might improve their efficiency. (My guess is the company had long ago implemented, or at least considered, the ideas the kids came up with, but that simply serves to illustrate how far they had come in just six hours of class-time.)
To be sure, it was not an average class in an average high school. Nueva School, located in the northern reaches of Silicon Valley, is private and expensive (tuition runs at $36,750 for an 8th grader), and caters to students who have already shown themselves to be high achievers. Many Silicon Valley tech luminaries send their children there, and some serve on the board. They have an excellent faculty. Moreover, the fifteen students in my class had elected to be there, as part of their rich, January, electives learning experience called “Intersession”.
I was familiar with the school, having been invited to speak at their annual education conference on a couple of occasions, but this was the first time I had taught a class.
Surprisingly, the experience reminded me of my own high school education, back in the UK in the early 1960s. My high school was a state run, selective school in the working class city of Hull, a major industrial city and large ocean fishing and shipping port. Socially and financially, it was about as far away as you could get from Nueva School on the San Francisco Peninsula, and my fellow students came from very different backgrounds than the students at Nueva.
What made my education so good was a highly unusual set of historical circumstances. Back then, Hull was a fiercely socialist city that, along with the rest of the UK, was clawing its way out of the ravages of the Second World War. For a few short years, the crippling English class system broke down, and an entire generation of baby boomers entered the school system determined to make better lives for themselves—and everyone else. (“Me first” came a generation later.)
We had teachers who had either just returned from fighting the war (the men on the battlefields, the women in the factories or in military support jobs), or were young men and women just starting out on their teaching careers, having received their own school education while the nation was at war. There was a newly established, free National Health Service, an emerging new broadcasting technology (television) run by a public entity, a rapidly growing communications systems (a publicly funded telephone service), and free education, including government-paid- for university education for the 3 percent or so able to pass the challenging entrance exams.
We were the generation that the nation was dependent on to rebuild, making our way through the education system in a social and political environment where the class divisions that had been a part of British life for centuries had been (temporarily, it turned out) cast aside by the need to fight a common enemy across the English Channel. The result was that, starting in the middle of the 1960s, a “British Explosion” of creative scientific, engineering, and artistic talent burst forth onto the world. Within our individual chosen domains, we all felt we could do anything we set our minds to. And a great many of us did just that. About half my high school class became highly successful people. That from a financially impoverished, working class background.
It was short lived, lasting but a single generation. I was simply lucky to be part of it.
What brought it all back to me was finding myself in a very similar educational environment in my three days at Nueva School. The circumstances could hardly be more different, of course. But talking and working with those students, I sensed the same thirst to learn, the same drive to succeed (in terms they set for themselves), and the same readiness to keep trying I had experienced two generations earlier. It felt comfortingly—and encouragingly—familiar.
But I digress. In fact, I’ve done more than digress. I’ve wandered far from my intended path. Or have I? The point I want to get across is that when it comes to learning, success is about 5 percent talent, 35 percent the teachers and students around you, and 60 percent desire and commitment. (I just made up those figures, but they represent more or less how I see the landscape, having been an education professional for half a century.)
It turns out that, in today’s world, given those ingredients, in roughly those proportions, it is possible for a small group of people, in the space of just a few days, to make significant progress in solving a major problem of massive societal importance. (If you can figure out how UPS performs its magic, you can do the same thing with many other large organizations, Walmart, Amazon, United Airlines, and so on.)
How can it be possible to take a small group of students, still in high school, and make solid progress on a major mathematical problem like that? It would not have been possible in my school days. The answer is, in today’s world, everyone has access to the same rich toolset the professionals use. Moreover, most of those tools—or at least, enough of them—are free to anyone with access to a smartphone or a personal computer. You just have to know how to make effective use of them.
Next month, I will describe how my Nueva class went about the UPS project. (I had done it once before, with a non-science majors undergraduate class at Princeton University. Doing it with high school students confirmed my belief that a group with less academic background could achieve the same result, in the process providing me with some major-league ammunition to back up my oft-repeated—and oft-ignored or disputed—claim that K-12 mathematics education is in need of a major (and I mean MAJOR) makeover. (After the invention of the automobile, it made more sense to teach people how to drive than how to look after a horse. I feel the math ed argument should end with that razor-sharp analogy, but it rarely does.)
As I say, that discussion is for next month. But let me leave you with a teaser. Actually, two teasers. One is my January 1, 2017 opinion piece in the Huffington Post, "All The Mathematical Methods I Learned In My University Math Degree Became Obsolete In My Lifetime." The other teaser is the diagram I will end with. It summarizes some of the most useful tools that a professional mathematician today uses when starting to work on a new problem. (Note: I’m talking about using math to solve real-world problems here. Pure mathematics is very different, although all the tools I will mention can be of use to a pure mathematician.)
This is my set of “most useful tools,” I should note, and reading the diagram left-to- right, top to bottom, the tools I list are roughly in the order I have used them in working on various projects over the past fifteen years. Other mathematicians might produce different collections and different orders. But they won’t be that much different, and I’ll bet they all begin with the same first tool.
If you find this diagram in any way surprising, you likely have not worked in today’s world of mathematical problem solving. If you find it surprising and are in mathematics education, I respectfully point out that this is the mathematical toolset that your students will need to master in order to make use of math in the world they will inhabit after graduation. You may or may not like that. If you don’t like it, then that is unfortunate. Mathematical problem solving is simply done differently today. It just is.
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