Issue Number 251 February 15, 2019

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) and Advancement of Globally Appropriate Technology and Education (AGATE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, seven free books based on the newsletters are available: Joy of Learning; Validity and Credibility of Information; Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

Dave Moursund’s newly revised and updated book, The Fourth R (Second Edition), is now available in both English and Spanish (Moursund, 2018c). The unifying theme of the book is that the 4th R of Reasoning/Computational Thinking is fundamental to empowering today’s students and their teachers throughout the K-12 curriculum. The first edition was published in December, 2016, the second edition in August, 2018, and the Spanish translation of the second edition in September, 2018. The three books have now had a combined total of more than 35,000 page-views and downloads.

ICT Tools and the Future of Education
Part 4b: Using Human and Computer Brains as Tools
in Solving Math Problems

David Moursund
Professor Emeritus, College of Education
University of Oregon

“Each problem that I solved became a rule which served afterwards to solve other problems.” (René Descartes; French philosopher, mathematician, scientist, and writer; 1596-1650.) 

This is the second of two IAE Newsletters exploring a version of George Pólya’s six-step strategy for attempting to solve a wide range of math problems (Pólya, 1957). The previous newsletter discussed the first two steps in the diagram given in Figure 1 below, and provided background information about What is Mathematics? and What is a Math Problem?. In brief summary, math and math problem solving are routine parts of our everyday lives and an integral component of PreK-12 education.

Some of the most important ideas from the previous newsletter are captured in the quote above. Descartes’ reference to “each problem that I solved” can be interpreted to mean all of his previous learning experiences. And, of course, all mathematicians realize that they learn from their failures as they try to solve a particular problem. When we are working to solve a problem, we are building on our previous successful and unsuccessful work, and that of others who came before us. Reading and writing were a very important aid to achieving such collaboration over the ages. Now we have computers. They are another great leap forward in terms of building on one’s own previous work and that of those who came before us.

This current newsletter discusses steps 3 through 6 in the diagram given in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1. A six-step procedure for solving math problems.
Background Information for Step 3

I suspect that most people do not realize how deeply math and aids to solving math problems are imbedded into their everyday lives. For example, suppose I ask you what time it is. You glance at your watch or other time-keeping device and read the analog or digital answer in a 12-hour or 24-hour format. You are using a tool to solve a math-related problem. My brain receives the numerical answer you say to me, and translates it into personal meaning for me.

Telling time involves the use of math, but it is not a pure math problem. It refers to measurement of time. Quantification is a routine part of our everyday lives. The development of accurate clocks and watches was a very major achievement, and it certainly changed our lives.

Think of some more types of machine or other aids to quantification. I step on the scales and read my weight. I look at a calendar and read the date. I look at items in a store and read the prices. In all of these example, my informal and formal education has helped me to attach personal meaning to the problem being solved.

However, sometimes quantification is not that simple. Suppose I am thinking about buying a product “with no money down, and easy monthly payments.” Hmm. What is it costing me and what does this method of payment mean to me?

Here is a more complex example. Suppose that I am thinking about buying a house or condo. I need to think about closing costs, down payment, interest rates, taxes, utilities, insurance, cost of upkeep, monthly payments, and so on. The math involved in dealing with this problem is relatively complex—and beyond the math education of most high school graduates.

As an amusing aside, think about hunter-gathers before the time of the invention of agriculture. Money, buying on time, paying interest, taxes, and other aspects of “home” ownership had not yet been invented. I find it fun to think about how complex life has become, and the essential roles of informal and formal education in helping us learn to deal with the problems we face today and in our futures.

Continuing the house-buying example, I can make use of the Web. I can find an interactive site that gathers the necessary information from me in a step-by-step manner and provides me with answers for varying lengths of loans, such as 15-year, 30-year, or whatever I pick. I am still left with issues such as whether I can afford to buy a house, and whether it would be a wise decision to buy a house.

In summary, these examples help to illustrate several vital aspects of math education. First, there is understanding—making sense of a human-posed problem situation in which math may be a useful aid to resolving the problem situation. Next, there is posing a problem to be solved. Third, there is creating a pure math problem whose solution we believe will be helpful to us in solving the problem. Fourth, there is the issue of whether we can solve the math problem. Fifth, there is the issue of whether having solved the math problem proves to be useful in resolving the original problem situation.

For a huge range of math problems that people encounter in their everyday lives, we now have tools that can help greatly in solving or can actually solve the math problem. This brings us back to step 3 in the six-step diagram.

Step 3: Solve the Pure Math Problem

For thousands of years, humans have been accumulating various types of math problems that are solvable and that have known methods of solution. It may take a person years of study to learn how to solve a particular type of math problem.

Just think of how long it takes a typical student to develop speed and accuracy in doing arithmetic on whole numbers, fractions, and decimal numbers. Teachers of first year algebra at the 8th or 9th grade level find that many of their students have not yet mastered doing arithmetic on fractions.

Students who are interested in studying math at a deeper level may well get through a year of calculus coursework while still in high school. But, all of that math is a very small part of the totality of known math that is covered thoroughly in the math literature. That is, even a doctorate in mathematics comes nowhere near preparing a person to solve the full range of math problems that occur in the various disciplines of study.

You know some of the capabilities of handheld calculators. Even an inexpensive calculator can add, subtract, multiply, and divide integers and decimal numbers. But, such an inexpensive calculator may also have keys for M+, M-, and CM (Clear Memory). To add 2/7 to 5/13 one first does 2 / 7 = and stores the result in memory by use of the M+ key. Then one calculates 5 / 13 = and adds the result to the number in memory by use of the keys + and MR. If you have such a calculator, have you learned to use these three keys? Many calculator owners have not.

For another example of the complexity of a simple calculator, consider the calculation (1/3) x 3. The result is 0.9999999 on my eight-digit calculator. Yet we expect the answer to be 1. Hmm. At what grade level do students learn to deal with this difficulty? My point is that even a simple calculator is a rather complex tool.

And, what about scientific and graphing calculators? Calculators now are allowed to be used on a variety of state and national exams. For example, quoting from SAT Suite of Assessments: Calculator Policy (SAT, 2019, link):

If you’re taking a Subject Test in Mathematics, bring an approved calculator on test day. Test centers will not provide one.

The only Subjects Tests for which calculators are allowed are Mathematics Level 1 and Mathematics Level 2. You must put it away when not taking a mathematics test. A scientific or graphing calculator is necessary for these tests. We recommend using a graphing calculator rather than a scientific calculator. [Bold added for emphasis.]

It is now common that use of such calculators is a routine part of the high school math curriculum in the United States.

We now have computer systems that can solve the full range of the types of pure math problems that students usually study in grades K-12 and in the first couple of years of a typical college math curricula. These are called Computer Algebra Systems or CAS (Wikipedia, 2019, link):

A computer algebra system is any mathematical software with the ability to manipulate mathematical expressions in a way similar to the traditional manual computations of mathematicians and scientists. The development of the computer algebra systems in the second half of the 20th century is part of the discipline of "computer algebra" or "symbolic computation", which has spurred work in algorithms over mathematical objects such as polynomials. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Notice the bolded section. To me, this sounds very much like the first mechanization of factories that is then later followed by their automation. Before we had mass production in factories, we had manual methods of producing the products. Now, we have automated such factories by use of computers.

Some aspects of a CAS are built into higher end calculators. Some CASs are free, and others can be purchased. The Mathematica CAS developed by Stephen Wolfram comes in both a commercially available system (Mathematica, 2019, link) and a less extensive free version (Wolfram Alpha, 2019, link). Quoting from Stephen Wolfram’s blog (Wolfram, 6/21/2018, link):

On June 23 we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the launch of Mathematica. Most software from 30 years ago is now long gone. But not Mathematica. In fact, it feels in many ways like even after 30 years, we’re really just getting started. Our mission has always been a big one: to make the world as computable as possible, and to add a layer of computational intelligence to everything.

Our first big application area was math (hence the name “Mathematica”). And we’ve kept pushing the frontiers of what’s possible with math. But over the past 30 years, we’ve been able to build on the framework that we defined in Mathematica 1.0 to create the whole edifice of computational capabilities that we now call the Wolfram Language—and that corresponds to Mathematica as it is today.

In brief summary, CAS and other aids to solving a huge range of math problems are continuing to improve through a combination of better (smarter) programs and faster computers. I particularly like the title of Stephen Wolfram’s blog, “We’ve come a long way in 30 years (but you haven’t seen anything yet!)”. I bolded the second part of the title that suggests such computer capabilities are going to get better and better. It seems obvious to me that a modern math education would include a substantial introduction of the currently available computer aids to solving math problems. Some progress has occurred. But, my prediction is that you haven’t seen anything yet!

Steps 4, 5, and 6: Move Backwards Through Steps 2 and 1.

Remember, we started with an ill-defined problem situation that seemed to be mathematical in nature. By the end of Step 3, we have produced a mathematical answer to a pure math problem. This math result may or may not be useful to us in resolving the original ill-defined problem situation.

Perhaps the first question to ask is whether not we correctly solved the math problem. If we used mental or paper-and-pencil math, there is a reasonable chance that we made an error. If we used a calculator, we may have keyed in a number incorrectly, accidently pushed an incorrect operation key, or read the calculator results incorrectly.

If we used a computer, there are all kinds of things that we could have done wrong. Perhaps you have heard the expression, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Using a computer, we may have processed a lot of data. Where did the data come from? How accurate is it? How does the data relate to the original problem at hand?

What computer program(s) did we use to carry out the math calculations? If we are doing a statistical analysis, for example, perhaps we used a wrong statistical program. Our data may not satisfy the mathematical requirements for the program to actually produce meaningful results. If we used a computer program in an interactive manner, how do we know we didn’t make a keyboarding error or a wrong decision in the interaction. How do we know that the programs we used did not contain errors?

The point is that just because a computer is used to solve a pure math problem does not mean that the result is correct.

Steps 4-6 are a process of converting the math results produced in step 3 into language that can be understood by others, and relating the results to the original problem situation. What do the math results mean relative to the original problem that was stated in natural language? We talk about number sense, math sense, and common sense. It is easy to ask whether the math results make common sense. But, each person has their own common sense. You might try to explain the results to various other people, and ask them if the results seem sensible. If the results don’t make sense, there is a good chance that errors occurred in doing steps 1-3.

Finally, think carefully about the meaning of the results you have obtained. At the very beginning, in step 1, you may not have posed the exact problem that you really wanted to solve. As noted in the previous newsletter, problem posing is often the most difficult part of problem solving.

Also, think carefully about whether or not you or other people really want to use the results you have produced. Perhaps the proposed processes that must occur in order to implement the results of your mathematical analysis would prove to be terribly wrong in terms of such goals at human values, human rights, and the betterment of the world.

Final Remarks

This and the previous newsletter are about using math to help solve problems and accomplish tasks. The problems and tasks are posed by people. These people need to have and use human insight into what problem is being posed and what the effects and side effects will be if a proposed solution is implemented. Math and computers can be quite helpful, both to develop possible solutions and to analyze possible effects of using or implementing the proposed solutions.

Our analysis of problem solving by making use of Pólya’s procedure combined with electronic aids to computation suggests a need for a major change in math education. Sometimes I find the following analogy useful: Spelling is to writing as computation is to mathing (doing and using math).

In writing, it certainly is desirable that one avoid making any spelling errors. But, that is a tiny part of effective written communication. Somewhat similarly, being fast and accurate at doing paper-and-pencil calculations does not make one into a productive math user.

Math educators need to pay careful attention to how much of the math education curriculum time and assessment is spent on step 3. This is the step at which computers are quite good and are becoming better and better. It seems only logical to me that our math education system should substantially decrease the time and effort that we now spend on helping students to develop speed and accuracy in by hand calculations, and spend much more time on helping students to understand and routinely do the other five steps. These steps require critical thinking, knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of math, and knowledge about uses of math across the curriculum and across their lives.

References and Resources

Mathematica (2019). Retrieved 1/24/2019 from

Moursund, D. (1/15/2019). Tools and the future of education, Part 3: ICT and math education. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 1/18/2019 from

Moursund, D. (2018). The fourth R (Second Edition). Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Retrieved 1/25/2019 from Download the Microsoft Word file from Download the PDF file from Download the Spanish edition from

Pólya, G. (1957). How to solve it: A new aspect of mathematical method (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton.

SAT (2019). SAT suite of assessments: Calculator policy. Retrieved 1/25/2019 from

Wikipedia (2019). Computer algebra system. Retrieved 1/24/2019 from

WolframAlpha (2019). Retrieved 1/24/2019 from

Wolfram, S. (6/21/2018). We’ve come a long way in 30 years (but you haven’t seen anything yet!). Wolfram Blog. Retrieved 1/24/2019 from


David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and editor of the IAE Newsletter. His professional career includes founding the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology (now published by ISTE as Empowered Learner).He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free online. See .

In 2007, Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE). IAE provides free online educational materials via its IAE-pedia, IAE Newsletter, IAE Blog, and IAE books. See . Information Age Education is now fully integrated into the 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation, Advancement of Globally Appropriate Technology and Education (AGATE) that was established in 2016. David Moursund is the Chief Executive Officer of AGATE.


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