Over the course of the last few weeks I have presented several keynote presentations and workshops on the topic of technology and mathematics, and addressing the needs of contemporary learners in the mathematics classroom. When talking about meaningful ways of incorporating digital devices into teaching and learning, I always caution teachers of the danger of allowing the devices to become the focus of the learning, as opposed to the mathematics being the focus.
The increasing popularity of mobile devices has meant that teachers now have literally thousands of applications (apps) to choose from when considering the use of technology for their mathematics lessons. Unfortunately though, the quality of the majority of mathematics-specific apps is questionable. The reason for this is that many of the apps available promote a traditional, drill and practice approach to learning. In fact, many do not promote learning at all and require the student to have prior understanding of the topic or concept covered. However, the news isn’t all bad. If we consider that in Australia our curriculum incorporates the ‘proficiencies’ of problem solving, reasoning, understanding and fluency (in New South Wales we have the added component of communicating), then many of the apps available do promote the building of fluency, but little else.
Unfortunately, the temptation of having so many apps to choose from means that there are some ‘app traps’ that teachers can fall into. Firstly, if you use an app that is presented in a game format, it is easy to create a ‘set and forget’ task. Imagine the scenario where a teacher sets five different tasks, all based on the same mathematical concept. Students are grouped and each group participates in a different task each day. One of the tasks is based upon an app. The students are directed to engage with the app for the duration of the group activity time. They are left alone or with minimal supervision. No evidence of learning is gathered, in fact, there is no evidence that the students were able to interact with the mathematics embedded with the app successfully.
On the other hand, picture the same scenario where one of the students is asked to act as a ‘supervisor’ and record any errors made by the other students. The students are given a short burst of time to engage with the task and the teacher then calls the group together to address any errors identified by the ‘supervisor’. The group then returns to the task and a different child gets to play the role of ‘supervisor’. At the end of the lesson the students are given tailored, task specific reflection prompts that allow them the opportunity to think about the mathematics involved in the game and reflect on challenges and successes. They may even be asked to provide advice to the next group of students to use the app.
Another ‘app trap’ for teachers is the temptation to rely on mathematics specific apps rather than generic apps that provide the students to become authors or producers rather than simply consumers. Consider the following task from my most recent book, Engaging Maths: iPad Activities for Teaching and Learning:
The task takes advantage of a number of generic apps and the focus remains firmly fixed on the mathematics task and the mathematical thinking of the students.
One final app trap (for the moment) is that often we download apps that look as though they are going to satisfy our students’ learning needs, however, we don’t have enough time to thoroughly engage with the app to ensure there are no nasty surprises or disappointments. Once the students are using the app in a mathematics lesson, things start to go wrong and the learning time is lost. Technology once again becomes the focus of the lesson. The message here is to try and test each new app before letting students use it. Make sure it has appropriate challenge, aligns with the learning intentions and the curriculum, and is engaging.
The way to avoid the app trap is to keep your use of digital devices simple. Focus on task creativity and apps that promote the role of students as producers and authors, rather than consumers. Seek advice from others who have used the apps that you are considering – they may have insights they could share. Above all, use your apps in ways that will enhance how you teach and how your students learn – if they don’t, then why use them at all?