Idealism and Reality in Mathematics Technology

So, you’re making your technology pitch to the school. You’ve just been to the conference and still feel the warm buzz of The Future, and you want the teachers to embrace the blogs, the wikis, the collaboration with schools in different cities, different states, different continents.

Then you meet resistance.

You up your game: you set up workshops, seminars, buy new software, buy new hardware, try to convert a few followers hoping entire departments will follow.

Maybe you grab the English department and suddenly have every student in school with their own blog. Perhaps the technology people are putting student-produced videos on YouTube. You hear the foreign language folks are using Skype to call Mexico and work with a network of 5 classes.

(Ok, ok, idealism here. But these things are at least possible.)

But hit the math department –

And all I’m saying is, look, I’ve got some math to teach over here. And until I can count on two fingers the number of math teachers who are building a meaningful practice out of tech, until this stuff begins to approximate the importance of a cash register to a grocery store checker . . .

which is the good reaction. (Quote from Dan Meyer.)

A lot of technology-coordination-types seem puzzled by this – why should math be any different from other subjects when adopting modern tech? – but it is, and there are (at least) three major reasons why.

The difficulty in working with equations on a computer

Sure, high school math teachers do statistics, and graphs, and even the occasional art project, but the meat of the content is working with equations. Even something easy to type like

Solve for x: 2+x = 3

can be a bear to demonstrate the steps on, and maybe could be done with fixed fonts and a fiddle like

-2  -2

but this is a post-understanding sort of kludge, and it’s not simply possible to work with things as easily as paper.

Students 3.0

The first graphing calculator was introduced in 1985, and it’s been a battle ever since.

One camp is fundamentally opposed to the notion of using graphing calculators, while the others think graphing calculators should be used at every level. This is still ongoing even though the AP Calculus tests require a graphing calculator and college expects students to arrive with the skills. (At one university I know of, they give incoming students a list of calculator tasks and say “if you don’t know how to do these, figure it out, because we’re not going to teach you.”)

Because the acceptance of graphing calculators is nearly a prerequisite for many modern math apps, arguments get stalled at the door. In other words, upgrading to wikis and the like is version 3.0, and 2.0 is still in beta.

Sometimes there really is only one right answer

With disciplines where multiple viewpoints are all equally valid, it’s easy to have a collaborative discussion where every contribution is valued and important. When solving a problem with only one right answer, snarls can hit. Maybe one student dominates the discussion, or things shut down too early, or everyone is stuck in a way that requires massive teacher intervention. These issues often aren’t discussed, and the edict to focus on process rather than solution gets messy in practice. (Although it’s a start, and even if there’s only one solution there may be multiple ways to get there.)

How this week will roll

I’m going to switch between general assessments of what’s going on and specific examples. I’m going to make a wish list for what I’d like to see in modern technology, because my sentiments match closely with the quote above.

I’m going to need your help. Some things I’m wanting really don’t exist, but I’m hoping there’s hidden gems out there I haven’t come across yet. If nothing else, maybe a developer will take notice and fill the gaps.

Jason Dyer, Guest Blogger

10 Responses to “Idealism and Reality in Mathematics Technology”

  1. You mention that some colleges are giving students lists of graphing calculator skills they are expected to know. Do you know of any resources that provide an example of one of these lists?

  2. My comment was simply too long to post here. So it’s become a blog post of it’s own (

    To summarize? Bring it on… whatever problems you’ve got … we’ve probably already got solutions for.

  3. Maggie: I only have an actual physical list from one university. I’ll see if I can get permission to post it. I’m sure it’s not the only one out there but I don’t get much chance to network at the college level.

  4. Here’s the dealio with math: okay, great. You’ve taught a kid to solve for x. Wonderful. In a social studies class you’ve taught a kid all the state capitols. Great. In science you’ve gotten your students to memorize the periodic table. Neato.

    Okay, now what?

    At what point are you going to ask your students to do something with what you taught them?

    If the something that you’re asking them to do is take a test. Well. Never mind. Sorry, didn’t mean to waste your time.

  5. I think many of the ideas that the author of the post is wrestling with, are indicative of a serious problem with educational technology implementations. The problem is that we are assigning or attributing value to something (technology, blogs, wikis, graphing calculators) which actually have no value at all. Zero, zip, nada, zilch. I am a technology director, and I said it!

    Now, before someone writes me off as a nut-job, let me point out what I mean.

    None of the technologies spoken about in this post have any value by themselves. A computer does nothing simply by being present, and neither does the use of graphing calculators, Wikis, blogs, or any other technology for that matter. The absence or presence of technology does not, in and of itself, add any value to an educational environment.

    It is how that technology is used which may or may not add value. And when we say that everyone needs to use it, we are focusing on the “it” and not the “why” or “to what end”.

    It is silly for us to focus on “it” if we know that “it” does not inherently add value.

    The argument that the students will use “it” in the real world is also less than a full story. It is kind of like a trump card people throw out to avoid a tough conversation.

    Example, “We have to integrate technology because every job in the real world uses it”. I’ve heard it way too many times. Ask employers their top ten list of skills for kids, and they do not want kids who can use Skype, they want kids who can communicate thoughts and ideas.

    So, why would we say to math teachers that they must use technology, when the most important skills in math deal with the human ability to problem solve and to look at problems with an analytical approach?

  6. YES!!! Joel’s comment is right on point! Technology is just another tool. I’m a hobby carpenter, in addition to being an adult educator. There is no quicker way to mutilate a project than to use the wrong tool. It’s the same way with education.

  7. Scott Kaminski Reply May 3, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    At the high school where I work, if we have a problem with our computers or digital whiteboards, and we need to contact the “tech” person, she always jokingly responds by saying that it is most likely “user error.” She is correct. The same goes for our students. If they do not know how to use the technology in the first place, then it will definitely not add value to their education.

    Last month, at our professional development, a representative from Texas Instruments came to our school to demonstrate how the new TI-Nspire can be used in our classrooms. Essentially, the graphing calculator has become a laptop, and it responds more like a computer, so that students can work with it a little bit easier. While it is a great tool to use in the classroom, every student needs to have the same model, and the teacher must have the hardware that links the calculators together. Also, much time is needed to become acclimated to its new capabilities, and how information can be transferred from teacher to student, and vice versa.

    As I was sitting through this presentation, I heard comments from some of my colleagues about the different reasons why it would be a waste of time to learn these new techniques. It made me upset, because they did not even give this new idea a fair chance. This is the main reason why technology is not being embraced as much as it should be. Some teachers are not willing to try something new, because they do not want to have learn something new, along with the students.

    Scott Kaminski

  8. I luv NPR! Check out the math guy – Keith Devlin – on “What do I need algebra for? – to be able to use (and create with) spreadsheets! Five minutes – worth the listen.

    TI is Texas Instruments to the math dep’t. It is technology non-integration is many ways. A highly specialized tool confined to a single content area. I luv graphing calculators don’t get me wrong, but I can do most of it on excel and have a skill that is marketable. (And it is readily available to many/most – no added cost.)

  9. Scott Kaminski Reply May 9, 2009 at 7:36 am

    I agree with you Gene, that graphing calculators are very content-specific. I was just trying to use it as an example to demonstrate why education is not advancing as quickly as technology.

    Another example, is that some of the teachers that I work with still keep a handwritten gradebook. There are many different programs now that will store this information, analyze the data, and provide different statistics about the progress (or lack thereof) of certain students.

    I am still amazed that even the “old school” teachers can not see the advantages of technology.

    Scott Kaminski


  1. Idealism and Reality in Math Tech? WAKE UP! - May 13, 2012

    […] I usually don’t use this space to rant about other blog posts, but I really have to do it in this case.I am a reader of Dangerously Irrelevant (which is geared towards K-12). This week, their guest blogger is writing about mathematics at the high school level. See today’s post entitled “Idealism and Reality in Math Technology“ […]

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