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TED2009

Arthur Benjamin: Teach statistics before calculus!

Filmed:

Someone always asks the math teacher, "Am I going to use calculus in real life?" And for most of us, says Arthur Benjamin, the answer is no. He offers a bold proposal on how to make math education relevant in the digital age.

- Mathemagician
Using daring displays of algorithmic trickery, lightning calculator and number wizard Arthur Benjamin mesmerizes audiences with mathematical mystery and beauty. Full bio

Now, if President Obama
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invited me to be the next Czar of Mathematics,
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then I would have a suggestion for him
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that I think would vastly improve
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the mathematics education in this country.
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And it would be easy to implement
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and inexpensive.
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The mathematics curriculum that we have
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is based on a foundation of arithmetic and algebra.
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And everything we learn after that
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is building up towards one subject.
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And at top of that pyramid, it's calculus.
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And I'm here to say
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that I think that that is the wrong summit of the pyramid ...
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that the correct summit -- that all of our students,
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every high school graduate should know --
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should be statistics:
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probability and statistics.
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(Applause)
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I mean, don't get me wrong. Calculus is an important subject.
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It's one of the great products of the human mind.
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The laws of nature are written in the language of calculus.
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And every student who studies math, science, engineering, economics,
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they should definitely learn calculus
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by the end of their freshman year of college.
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But I'm here to say, as a professor of mathematics,
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that very few people actually use calculus
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in a conscious, meaningful way, in their day-to-day lives.
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On the other hand,
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statistics -- that's a subject that you could,
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and should, use on daily basis. Right?
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It's risk. It's reward. It's randomness.
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It's understanding data.
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I think if our students, if our high school students --
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if all of the American citizens --
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knew about probability and statistics,
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we wouldn't be in the economic mess that we're in today. (Laughter) (Applause)
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Not only -- thank you -- not only that ...
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but if it's taught properly, it can be a lot of fun.
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I mean, probability and statistics,
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it's the mathematics of games and gambling.
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It's analyzing trends. It's predicting the future.
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Look, the world has changed
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from analog to digital.
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And it's time for our mathematics curriculum to change
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from analog to digital,
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from the more classical, continuous mathematics,
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to the more modern, discrete mathematics --
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the mathematics of uncertainty,
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of randomness, of data --
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that being probability and statistics.
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In summary, instead of our students
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learning about the techniques of calculus,
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I think it would be far more significant
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if all of them knew what two standard deviations
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from the mean means. And I mean it.
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Thank you very much.
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(Applause)
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About the Speaker:

Arthur Benjamin - Mathemagician
Using daring displays of algorithmic trickery, lightning calculator and number wizard Arthur Benjamin mesmerizes audiences with mathematical mystery and beauty.

Why you should listen

Arthur Benjamin makes numbers dance. In his day job, he's a professor of math at Harvey Mudd College; in his other day job, he's a "Mathemagician," taking the stage in his tuxedo to perform high-speed mental calculations, memorizations and other astounding math stunts. It's part of his drive to teach math and mental agility in interesting ways, following in the footsteps of such heroes as Martin Gardner.

Benjamin is the co-author, with Michael Shermer, of Secrets of Mental Math (which shares his secrets for rapid mental calculation), as well as the co-author of the MAA award-winning Proofs That Really Count: The Art of Combinatorial Proof. For a glimpse of his broad approach to math, see the list of research talks on his website, which seesaws between high-level math (such as his "Vandermonde's Determinant and Fibonacci SAWs," presented at MIT in 2004) and engaging math talks for the rest of us ("An Amazing Mathematical Card Trick").

More profile about the speaker
Arthur Benjamin | Speaker | TED.com