We can rebuild the maths classroom! We have the technology! (But do we know how to use it?)

What is something that many people agree is essential, and in reality may be helpful in some cases, but many times exists for its own sake? If you think of something, I would like to know, because I want to use it as a clever analogy for the use of technology in the classroom. As the world has moved farther along in the computer age, the education community has become more and more obsessed with integrating technology into the classroom. We talk about the “digital divide” and lament lack of internet access, but as computer technology has become increasingly cheaper we see the divide rapidly closing and that it is rare to see a school district without computers or access to the internet—and as experiments in Africa1 and India2 have shown, the time taken to bridge the divide is frivolous once access to technology is granted. Certainly some schools still have more technology than others, but in an age of ubiquitous computer technology, the digital divide becomes a question of which schools have 1:1 iPads and which schools don’t. In a strange juxtaposition, we worry about the availability of technology for everyone and then in the same breath we turn around and demand the most expensive model of the most recent technology that arguably does the job no better than a much cheaper brand or different type of equipment altogether.

But do we really need 1:1 iPad classrooms? Do we even need one iPad—or any tablet—in our classrooms at all? Is an interactive whiteboard a necessary piece of equipment in every classroom? If it is, should it be viewed as a replacement for a traditional whiteboard or a supplement? Is a digital textbook necessarily better than a traditional one? More to the point, if my mathematics textbook has some fundamental pedagogical errors, will those errors be erased by a digital medium? I do not know the definitive answers to all of those questions, but I believe the answer to the final question is no.

I see a mad scramble in education right now to incorporate technology in any way we can and the end result is an educational boondoggle: technology for the sake of technology. In our modern digital age, it makes sense that we must prepare our children to be digitally competent and literate and take full advantage of any technology that helps us teach more successfully.  There big question we should ask when we want to incorporate technology into a classroom is this: Does it help in the students learn in a way that paper could not? (Or if they are the same, what is a more efficient use of time and resources?) In the math classroom, we can have every student doing exercises on a computer or tablet—which serves for easier scoring for the teacher, to be sure—but does the student really understand the skill being practiced any better by using a computer to answer?

“Foul!” You cry to me. “This is a straw-man argument!” you say, “You are equating the use of technology with poor pedagogy such as drill-and-kill when meaningful problem solving can also be done on technology.” This is very true, but if we are honest with ourselves, we know the use of technology in the classroom will be no better than the pedagogy of the teacher in that classroom. If all the teacher does is exercise worksheets and so on, continuing on the path of traditional mathematics education in the United States, technology will not be a magic panacea that cures all classroom ills—technology cannot make you a better teacher. It just makes your ineffective methods more flashy and expensive. No, the use of technology in that classroom will simply be a repackaged version of what was being done before, but on a computer.

An example of this that is a hot-button issue in the education world is the Khan Academy: it delivers lectures via YouTube videos on literally hundreds of topics, free and available to anyone with an internet connection—which in the near future will be everyone. A utopian vision of free education in mathematics and the sciences for everyone—look what great things technology has done for us! But what has it really done? Educational research says lecture is generally not the most effective way to learn mathematics, although that is not to say that it is never useful. Technology has found a way for us to deliver mathematics lectures more efficiently, but it turns out that lectures aren’t really what we wanted in the first place. (And as some have criticized—the lectures of Khan Academy are not even the best that lecture can be.)

What we need instead are educators that know the most effective strategies to teach mathematics, and find ways to utilize technology in ways that enhance or complement those strategies. As Frank Nochese, a physics teacher and blogger writes: “Khan Academy is way more efficient than classroom lecturing. Khan Academy does it better. But TRUE progressive educators, TRUE education visionaries and revolutionaries don’t want to do these things better. We want to DO BETTER THINGS.”3 How can we use technology to aid our goals in teaching students how to persevere in problem solving, develop and evaluate mathematical arguments for proof, communicate mathematical thinking coherently, and create and recognize multiple representations of mathematical ideas? Rather than simply installing technologies into our classrooms, we must carefully create problems and digital curriculum that engages and challenges students—just as we must do whether we have the technology available to us or not. A great example of this is the Taco Cart 3 Acts Lesson by Dan Meyer, which you can check out as a partially realized version here.

For the sake of transparency, I must confess that I have not always lived up to the standard I prescribe for technology in the mathematics classroom. Currently in my placement as a student teacher, I have an interactive board available to me. Unfortunately, it has been placed in the classroom in such a way that forces it to be a replacement for a traditional whiteboard rather than a supplement—that is, it has been directly mounted over the traditional whiteboard. Pictures from Google Images and YouTube videos are often used as illustrations and supplemental material in my Powerpoint presentations, but my instructional method is a type of dynamic lecture far more often that I would like.

My placement school has a bring-your-own-device policy, but because the curriculum I am using was written before the prolific use of smart phones and tablets, there is no immediate and obvious way to incorporate them. Consequently the only times where a student had a good reason for their phone to be out in my classroom was when they were writing down the homework. I do enjoy using GeoGebra as a dynamic illustrative tool, but unfortunately this is usually done in a manner where I am in front of the classroom and ask the students questions as I manipulate the program rather than allowing the students time to explore, make conjectures, and generalize results.

I am all for the use of technology in the classroom, but we have to ensure that both technology and our curriculum has been designed and implemented in authentic ways that truly help students learn and do not exist merely for their own sake.

This is a position paper I wrote for my Advanced Secondary Methods: Mathematics course on technology in the classroom. I debated removing the Khan Academy part because of how contentious (Pretentious? Eh. Both.) that debate can get, but let’s be honest. Not enough people read my blog for it to matter.

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When are you going to learn math?

And when am I going to find time to teach it?

This is the question I asked one of my classes the other day when they when no one was paying attention. It did not have the desired effect.

Currently I am feeling very frustrated and discouraged at my student teaching placement. (I believe I have been careful to conceal the location of this placement here on this blog.)

Some of this is in my own power to fix or is merely the by-product of being a brand new pre-service teacher. I am working on this and I hope I will get better.

Some of this frustration is being in the particular situation I am in as a student teacher. I can do some stuff about this issue but some is also out of my control.

Some of this frustration is the state of education. This is out of my control, but frustrating nonetheless.

Here are a list of things I am frustrated about. They are not unique to me. Some of them may not even be legitimate complaints. I feel frustrated about them anyway. This blog post is a way for me to express them.

Part of that is just the learning curve of being a teacher, but I am struggling a lot with good classroom management. The bells where class runs the smoothest is mixtures of kids who are willing to learn and do not disrupt class too often. Two of my bells, both 8th grade classes, have been very difficult to create an environment where students can learn mathematics.

I do not believe I am the worst teacher in the world at classroom management (in fact, the other day another teacher complimented me on how I handled my most difficult class, but I barely managed to teach anything that day and who knows if the students had a chance to learn anything) but my technique leaves something to be desired.

By something I mean a lot.

I am too reluctant to get on a misbehaving student.

I want to be liked. (Why?)

It draining to me to confront someone when they are off-task. I ignore too many behaviors. I need to be more assertive and less passive. I end up just wishing they would do what they are supposed to.

This is a completely unrealistic desire. They’re 13.

I’ve lost my temper once. I never wanted to do that.

I’ve yelled to get a point across several times. I never wanted to do that.

When too many students are misbehaving at once, I feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start to regain control. (Its like whack-a-mole. Except there are 28 moles, all of them pop up at once, the game board is 25 ft by 10 ft, and my mallet is the size of a pencil. I know that’s a bad analogy because the fact that it feels like whack-a-mole to me means something is off in my classroom.)

A detention with me after class doesn’t seem to really scare the students, many of whom blow it off–not that I’ve given out that many–and referrals to the office don’t faze them.

I’m told that my school is a very mild case compared to neighboring districts.

If I can’t handle this group of kids, how will I be able to even come close to being an effective teacher in more difficult districts?

I haven’t established a good procedure for calling the whole class to attention.

In very rare cases have I managed to foster the natural curiosity that people have and most of the time motivation for doing an assignment or working in class is “I’m going to grade this.” I hate that. And because I’m the student teacher it feels like I don’t have the power to change that atmosphere. I don’t know whether my feelings reflect reality but that’s how I feel.

Many of my students–even the ones that are in accelerated classes or are highly motivated–want everything spoon fed to them, and give up at the very first sign of difficulty while solving or learning mathematics. It’s very clear that many times they have not even attempted to read the problem, but just write down numbers or ask for help before even thinking about it.

The fact that as a class we have done more with algebra using the Connected Mathematics curriculum than in the actual Algebra I class boggles my mind. Seriously, my 8th graders did better graphing and identifying the parts of a linear equation than my 9th graders and advanced 8th graders.

Instead of being concerned about teaching math, I have to cover up to chapter 6 in the Algebra text by December. I do not believe these two things are the same.

I have the responsibility to teach over 100 students mathematics, but neither the authority nor the freedom to do either thing in a manner I believe is most effective.

I fear that situation will not cease when I move from student teaching to my first year and beyond.

The sheer amount of standardized testing I have administered to my students already is insane–already far more than I ever had to take as an 8th grader. The principal of the school says the students will take eleven standardized tests before they graduate. When I talk about this at work, a colleague notes that I am already cynical about my profession.

I am cynical and I am not even a licensed teacher yet! How sad is that? (This is one that I feel I can have the power to at least mask, and hopefully fix, even if there are still standardized tests.)

I am moving into a profession that is seeing more and more oversight by non-experts far removed from the classroom where the scores of my students on illegitimate assessments will be analyzed by an illegitimate statistical analysis method will determine if I keep my job and how much I get paid to do it.

Instead of planning engaging lessons that will challenge my students to learn how to solve, represent, and talk about problems in mathematics, I spend large amounts of time grading papers that students did not complete, did not understand, or did not even attempt.

I do not know if I am capable of creating lessons where students learn without homework, even though I believe that homework is a very ineffective teaching tool and that “skill practice” is not mathematics education.

I am afraid that I am not talented or trained enough to create a mathematics classroom that addresses many of these issues and creates an environment where students can learn.

I am afraid that my career will always demand more time than is healthy.

I am afraid that I as a teacher I will never move past survival mode from day to day.

I feel overwhelmed trying to balance the demands of my student teaching placement, TPA requirements, and a grad class.

I am afraid that if I am having trouble balancing these demands as a student teacher then I will not be able to succeed as a full time teacher.

I haven’t given up yet.

Pray for me!

Romans 8:38-39

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