Welcome to What if Math

Three years ago I read a wonderful book by Keith Devlin called The Man of Numbers. It told the story of Leonardo of Pisa who was the first to convert Arabic arithmetic and algebra for European use. Devlin told Leonardo’s story and he described the process by which Leonardo’s book Liber abbaci (The Book of Calculation) became the basis for both the teaching of students and the development of European mathematics. Leonardo viewed his book and his task as providing a new means for merchants and businessmen to do the calculation they needed, replacing the slow, cumbersome, and error prone Roman Numerals they were then using. Devlin included the table of contents of Liber abbaci.

When I took a close look at that TOC, I saw the K-12 math curriculum we require every student today to master. I was awestruck. The math we teach our students today is the math Leonardo defined to meet the needs of medieval traders and bankers. It was not “basic.” It was not fundamental. It was the math needed and designed for 13th century business. It is obsolete! Business today does not use most of it and has no need for most of it. Do our children need to learn “long division”?

Since the invention of the personal computer spreadsheet in 1979, business has focused on the math of functions and not of solving equations with machines calculating we no longer require pencil and paper algorithms to do arithmetic. I have been a math educator for over 40 years and not only did it finally dawn on me that much of the math we teach is no longer necessary, but that the math we should be teaching, the math our students will need to learn and use, is the math of spreadsheets and not the math of Leonardo.

I started working with some wonderful friends to think about what this reinvention of mathematics education would look like. Peter Mili a truly great math teacher, Larry Reeves my longtime collaborator, George Blakeslee my educational mentor, Steve Bayle my technology mentor and one of the spreadsheet pioneers, my sons Brenan and Arran, and wonderful other friends who helped us think through and grow these ideas.

We developed our first version of What if Math two years ago as case studies for problem-based-learning. They were difficult to develop and difficult to use. Last fall I started making some spreadsheets for my friend Megan Peterson to try in her 2nd grade classrooms, and in January my friend, Craig Kelley, after seeing those primitive lessons, challenged me during one of our many breakfasts and lunches talking about the future of education. “I get the need, but if you want me to believe in a spreadsheet-based curriculum you need to show me what a 2nd grade curriculum would look like.”

I took up Craig’s challenge and over the past year months we have been developing these lessons for, by, and on spreadsheets. We have more than 60, spread across the curriculum to serve as models for many more. We have another 40 in our pipeline and more in our imaginations. This summer and winter break, Ryan McQuade, still an art student at Lesley University, has made them beautiful and developed a great website to make them accessible. We give them to you at no cost to begin to build the math curriculum of the future. Our dream is to make learning mathematics a creative, challenging, and collaborative experience for every student.

I look forward to your experiences and your thoughts and hope your students get the same thrill in learning that we have experienced.