As I was watching our middle school kids trying to unravel the intricacies of dividing decimals (move the decimal, move the other decimal and bring it up) I started wondering just how much computing power was sitting in their backpacks. Each student has been issued a MacBook with a 1.2 gig RAM and a 2 GHz processor. In comparison, the Apollo Guidance Computer that guided the spacecraft to the moon had 2k RAM operating at about 2 MHz. That means our 6th graders have 600,000 times the memory operating 1000 times faster than the computer that did the rocket science for the Apollo mission. In fact, the computing machine in their hands could do all the paper and pencil calculations these kids will do in the rest of their public school career before the kid could get to the pencil sharpener and back.
This has to change how we think about teaching math. If an algorithm exists, a computer can do it. I don’t think we have a good map of this new ground before us, but I do feel we need to throw the old map away. Teaching computational skills at the expense of conceptual understanding and technology-based problem solving is just no longer appropriate.