Algorithms and the never ending debate

The following is an email exchange with my brother, who is a bio-mechanics student and works in a laboratory. He always excelled in school mathematics, top of the class type of kid. Even today, if given a survey ranking your mathematical ability, he would put himself on the far end of the "proficient" spectrum. Math is an important part of his life and work.
From Me (the curious big brother)

I have a question for you.

As a professional scholar who works in a lab setting working with maths on a daily basis how often would you say that you use traditional algorithms that you learned in math class? Like long division, multiplying with the two numbers on top of each other, or using addition and subtraction?

Response From KD 

I use Math constantly, of course. But you said ‘traditional algorithm’… I mostly would really only do quick mental math, so I am not sure how much of the traditional algorithm process I still use.

The thing is though, anytime I need to use math officially I will have a computer program do it for me (maybe something as simple as excel, maybe something more complex as matlab), we would never trust something important as our data and complex calculations to be trusted to human and potential error.

If your general question was to ‘how important is knowledge of math’, the answer is very important. Biomechanics is basically physics, but the process has become so computerized and dependant on technology that in a weird way we don’t really use pen and paper type of math like in math class, at least not for important calculations used in our final product. But when we are messing around and brainstorming, we still bust out pen and paper.

My questions now are:

Are we teaching algorithms because we have always taught them? 
Are they a useful tool in this modern world?
Have they lost their importance, like the slide rule?
What is the benefit to using them and teaching them?
What key concepts are students learning when we teach the traditional algorithms?

What are your thoughts?


  1. Well, my husband is a Chartered Accountant for a multi-national and his roles have included internal, external auditing and financial controls (to make sure accounting processes are accurate and honest etc.). He relies on software, computers to crunch the huge numbers and computers are faster, more reliable and accurate than human calculations. But, his understanding of what the computers are doing were laid on a foundation of traditional pen & paper (maybe even Abacus?) algorithms. Those algorithms represent huge concepts and the fact that a person can go through the steps of an algorithm and explain the underlying meaning behind all the "symbols, ticks, digits" is a sign of true understanding. The problem is when we teach and use algorithms without really understanding what each step/tick/digit represents. I'm an advocator of using manipulatives right through Primary School so students can "see" the math represented by the Algorithms.

    Second reply to this is what I have mentioned before in prior discussions ;) Is it really OK to pass up skills just because a computer or robot can do it better and more accurate? Sometimes having a skill "isn't" useful but more a marker of being an intelligent human being, an educated human-being, or even a cultured human-being. Example is the Asian culture's priority on beautiful handwriting. This is not going away despite Western cultures abandoning cursive handwriting in favour of keyboarding. Does everything have to be "practical" before we have to learn it? If so, some people might argue that the Fine Arts aren't "practical". Being able to show your understanding of math through an algorithm might be a "beautiful" thing just like anything else in the Fine Arts.


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