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

  1. Be very careful when you say that research shows that lectures are not effective. In fact, most research shows that, under most circumstances, lectures are more effective for teaching math skills. (Note: this is not true for experiential learning in physics, where phenomena have to be described and understood.)
    It is certainly more fun to work in a hands-on forum, you’re certainly more likely to get kids doing something, but the actual teaching of mathematical skills – algebraic manipulation, arithmetic solutions and estimates, graphing, applications to real life – are more likely to be learned for efficacy and mastery in a traditional classroom.
    That’s why you end up with traditional lecture-style presentations. Learning skills in an apprenticeship format typically takes years, of 24 hours a day, with a master artisan.
    By the way, I used to make power-point style presentations 11 years ago, but I determined that most of my kids see a lighted screen at the front of the room, and turn their brains into “entertained” mode. So we are working on the less efficacious, project/skills based model.

  2. I find that the most effective use of my technology is not for learning but for assessment. I can do without student laptops during the initial learning process, but utilized as assessment and reporting tools, they are indispensable. I don’t know how I would manage a self paced class without them.

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