Tag Archives: #arithmetic

A Response to Slate: How the recent article on technology misses the point.

Ah, summer. A great time to kick back, relax, and have time to write reactions to things that bug me.

I read through the article on Slate titled 'Why Johnny Can't Add Without a Calculator' and found it to be a rehashing of a whole slew of arguments that drive me nuts about technology in education. It also does a pretty good job of glossing over a number of issues relative to learning math.

The problem isn't that Johnny can't add without a calculator. It's that we sometimes focus too much about turning our brain into one.

This was the sub-heading underneath the title of the article:

Technology is doing to math education what industrial agriculture did to food: making it efficient, monotonous, and low-quality.

The author then describes some ancedotes describing technology use and implementation:

  • An experienced teacher forced to give up his preferred blackboard in favor of an interactive whiteboard, or IWB.
  • A teacher unable to demonstrate the merits of an IWB beyond showing a video and completing a demo of an electric circuit.
  • The author trying one piece of software and finding it would not accept an answer without sufficient accuracy.

I agree with the author's implication that blindly throwing technology into the classroom is a bad idea. I've said many times that technology is only really useful for teaching when it is used in ways that enhance the classroom experience. Simply using technology for its own sake is a waste.

These statements are true about many tools though. The mere presence of one tool or another doesn't make the difference - it is all about how the tool is used. A skilled teacher can make the most of any textbook - whether recently published or decades old - for the purposes of helping a student learn. Conversely, just having an interactive whiteboard in the classroom does not make students learn more. It is all about the teacher and how he or she uses the tools in the room. The author acknowledges this fact briefly at the end in arguing that the "shortfall in math and science education can be solved not by software or gadgets but by better teachers." He also makes the point that there is no "technological substitute for a teacher who cares." I don't disagree with this point at all.

The most damaging statements in the article surround how the author's misunderstanding of good mathematical education and learning through technology.

Statement 1: "Educational researchers often present a false dichotomy between fluency and conceptual reasoning. But as in basketball, where shooting foul shots helps you learn how to take a fancier shot, computational fluency is the path to conceptual understanding. There is no way around it."

This statement gets to the heart of what the author views as learning math. I've argued in previous posts on how my own view of the relationship between conceptual understanding and learning algorithms has evolved. I won't delve too much here on this issue since there are bigger fish to fry, but the idea that math is nothing more than learning procedures that will someday be used and understood does the whole subject a disservice. This is a piece of the criticism of Khan Academy, but I'll leave the bulk of that argument to the experts.

I will say that I'm really tired of the sports skills analogy for arguing why drilling in math is important. I'm not saying drills aren't useful, just that they are never the point. You go through drills in basketball not just to be able to do a fancier shot (as he says) but to be able to play and succeed in a game. This analogy also falls short in other subjects, a fact not usually brought up by those using this argument. You spend time learning grammar and analysis in English classes (drills), but eventually students are also asked to write essays (the game). Musicians practice scales and fingering (drills), but also get opportunities to play pieces of music and perform in front of audiences (the game).

The general view of learning procedures as the end goal in math class is probably the most destructive reason why people view math as something acceptable not to be good at. Learning math this way can be low-quality because it is "monotonous [and] efficient", which is not technology's fault.

One hundred percent of class time can't be spent on computational fluency with the expectation that one hundred percent of understanding can come later. The two are intimately entwined, particularly in the best math classrooms with the best teachers.

Statement 2: "Despite the lack of empirical evidence, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics takes the beneficial effects of technology as dogma."

If you visit the link the author includes in his article, you will see that what NCTM actually says is this:

"Calculators and other technological tools, such as computer algebra systems, interactive geometry software, applets, spreadsheets, and interactive presentation devices, are vital components of a high-quality mathematics education."

...and then this:

"The use of technology cannot replace conceptual understanding, computational fluency, or problem-solving skills."

In short, the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics wants both understanding and computational fluency. It really isn't one or the other, as the author suggests.

The author's view of what "technology" entails in the classroom seems to be the mere presence of an interactive whiteboard, new textbooks, calculators in the classroom, and software that teaches mathematical procedures. This is not what the NCTM intends the use of technology to be. Instead the use of technology allows exploration of concepts in ways that cannot be done using just a blackboard and chalk, or pencil and paper. The "and other technological tools next to calculators in the quote has become much more significant over the past five years, as Geometers Sketchpad, Geogebra, Wolfram Alpha, and Desmos have become available.

Teachers must know how to use these tools for the nature of math class to change to one that emphasizes mathematical thinking over rote procedure. If they don't, then math continues as it has been for many years: a set of procedures that students may understand and use some day in the future. This might be just fine for students that are planning to study math, science, or engineering high school. What about the rest of them? (They are the majority, by the way.)

Statement 3: "...the new Common Core standards for math...fall short. They fetishize “data analysis” without giving students a sufficient grounding to meaningfully analyze data. Though not as wishy-washy as they might have been, they are of a piece with the runaway adaption of technology: The new is given preference over the rigorous."

If "sufficient grounding" here means students doing calculations done by hand, I completely disagree. Ask a student to add 20 numbers by hand to calculate an average, and you'll know what I mean. If calculation is the point of a lesson, I'll have students calculate. The point of data analysis is not computation. Just because the tools take the rigor out of calculation does not diminish the mathematical thinking involved.

Statement 4: "Computer technology, while great for many things, is just not much good for teaching, yet. Paradoxically, using technology can inhibit understanding how it works. If you learn how to multiply 37 by 41 using a calculator, you only understand the black box. You’ll never learn how to build a better calculator that way."

For my high school students, I am not focused on students understanding how to multiply 37 by 41 by hand. I do expect them to be able to do it. Usually when my students do get it wrong, it is because they feel compelled to do it by hand because they are taught (in my view incorrectly) that doing so is somehow better, even when a calculator sits in front of them. As with Statement 3, I am not usually interested in students focusing on the details of computation when we are learning difference quotients and derivatives. This is where technology comes in.

I tweeted a request to the author to check out Conrad Wolfram's TED Talk on using computers to teach math, and asked for a response. I still haven't heard back. I think it would be really revealing for him to listen to Wolfram's points about computation, the traditional arguments against computation, and the reasons why computers offer students new opportunities to explore concepts in ways they could not with mere pencil and paper. His statement that math is much more than computation has really changed the way I think about teaching my students math in my classroom.

Statement 5: "Technology is bad at dealing with poorly structured concepts. One question leads to another leads to another, and the rigid structure of computer software has no way of dealing with this. Software is especially bad for smart kids, who are held back by its inflexibility."

Looking at computers used purely as rote instruction tools, I completely agree. That is a fairly narrow view of what learning mathematics can be about.

In reality, technology tools are perfectly suited for exploring poorly structured concepts because they let a student explore the patterns of the big picture. The situation in which "one question leads to another" is exactly what we want students to feel comfortable exploring in our classroom! Finally, software that is designed for this type of exploration is good for the smart students (who might quickly make connections between different graphical, algebraic, and numerical representations of functions, for example) and for the weaker students that might need different approaches to a topic to engage with a concept.

The truly inflexible applications of technology are, sadly, the ones that are also associated with easily measured outcomes. If technology is only used to pass lectures and exercises to students so they can perform well on standardized tests, it will be "efficient, monotonous, and low quality" as the author states at the beginning.

The hope that throwing calculators or computers in the classroom will "fix" problems of engagement and achievement without the right people in the room to use those tools is a false one, as the author suggests. The move to portray mathematics as more than a set of repetitive, monotonous processes, however, is a really good thing. We want schools to produce students that can think independently and analytically, and there are many ways that true mathematical thinking contributes to this sort of development. Technology enables students to do mathematical thinking even when their computation skills are not up to par. It offers a different way for students to explore mathematical ideas when these ideas don't make sense presented on a static blackboard. In the end, this gets more students into the game.

This should be our goal. We shouldn't going back to the most basic textbooks and rote teaching methods because it has always worked for the strongest math students. There must have been a form of mathematical Darwinism at work there - the students that went on historically were the ones that could manage the methods. This is why we must be wary of the argument often made that since a pedagogical method "worked for one person" that that method should be continued for all students. We should instead be making the most of resources that are available to reach as many students as possible and give them a rich experience that exposes them to the depth and variety associated with true mathematical thinking.

Take Time to Tech - Perspectives after a Flip


Yesterday my calculus students reaped some of the benefits of a flipped class situation - I made some videos on differentiation rules and asked that they watch the videos sometime between our last class and when we met yesterday. We spent nearly the entire period working with derivatives rules for the first time. The fact that the students were getting their first extended period of deliberate practice with peers and me around (rather than alone while doing homework later on) will hopefully result in the students developing a strong foundation what is really an important skill for the rest of calculus.

They were using Wolfram Alpha to check their work, something that I paid lip-service to doing last year but did not introduce explicitly on the first day of learning these rules last year. There was plenty of mistake-catching going on and good conversations about simplifying and equivalent answers. I needed to do very little in this process - good in that the students were teaching themselves and each other and being active in their learning.

It was also interesting doing this so soon after discussing the role of technology in helping students learn on the #mathchat Twitter discussion. There were many great points made regarding the content of technology's effective use across grades. It made me think quite a bit about my evolution regarding technology in the classroom. Many comments were made about calculator use, teaching pencil and paper algorithms, and the role of spreadsheets and programming in developing mathematical thinking. I found a lot of connections to my own thoughts and teaching experiences and it has me buzzing now to try to explain and define my thinking in these areas. Here goes:

Developing computational and algorithmic fluency has its place.

In the context of my students learning to apply the derivative rules, I know what is coming up the road. If students can quickly use these rules to develop a derivative function, than the more interesting applications that use the derivative will involve less brain power and time in the actual mechanics of differentiation. More student energy can then be focused in figuring out how to use the derivative as a tool to describe the behavior of other functions, write equations for tangent and normal lines, and do optimization and minimization.

There was a lot of discussion during the chat about the use of calculators in place of or in addition to students knowing their arithmetic. I do think that good arithmetic ability can make a difference in how easily students can learn to solve new types of mathematical problems - in much the same way that skill in differentiation makes understanding and solving application problems easier. Giving the students the mental tools needed to do arithmetic with pencil and paper algorithms empowers them to do arithmetic in cases when a calculator is not available.

Technology allows students to explore mathematical thinking, often in spite of having skill deficiencies.

One of the initiatives my colleagues took (and I signed on since it made a lot of sense) when I first started teaching was using calculators as part of instruction in teaching students to solve single variable linear equations. There was a lot of discussion and protest regarding how the students should be able to manage arithmetic of integers in their head. It wasn't that I disagreed with this statement - of course the students should have ideally developed these skills in middle school. The first part of the class involving evaluating algebraic expressions and doing operations on signed numbers were done without calculators in the same way it had been done before.

The truth, however, was that the incoming students were severely deficient in number sense and arithmetic ability. Spending a semester or two of remediation before moving forward to meet the benchmarks of high school did not seem to make sense, especially in the context of the fact that students could use a calculator on the state test. So we went forward and used calculators to handle the arithmetic while students needed to reason their way through solving equations of various forms. They did learn how to use the technology to check the solutions they obtained through solving the equations step-by-step using properties. There were certainly downsides to doing things this way. Students did not necessarily know if the answers the calculators gave them made sense. They would figure it out in the end when checking, but it was certainly a handicap that existed. The fact that these students were able to make progress as high school math students meant a lot to them and often gave them the confidence to push forward in their classes and, over time, develop their weaknesses in various ways.

I have seen the same thing at the higher levels of mathematics and science. I used Geogebra last year in both pre-Calculus and Calculus with students that had rather weak algebra skills to explore concepts that I was taught from an algebra standpoint when I learned them. Giving them tools that allow the computer to do what it does well (calculate) and leave student minds free to make observations, identify patterns, and test theories that describe what is happening made class visibly different for many of these students. If a computer is able to generate an infinite number of graphs for a calculus student to identify what it means for a function graph to have a zero derivative, then using that technology is worth the time and effort spent setting up those opportunities for students.

Using skill level as a prerequisite for doing interesting or applied problems in mathematics is the wrong approach.

Saying you can't drive a car until you can demonstrate each of the involved skills separately makes no sense. Saying that students won't appreciate proportional reasoning until they have cross-multiplied until their pencils turn blue makes no sense. Saying that learning skills through some medium makes all the other projects and applications that some of us choose to explore in class possible does not make sense. It makes mathematics elitist, which it certainly should not be.

Yes, having limited math skills is a limit on the range of problem solving techniques that are available to students. A student that can't solve an equation using algebra is destined to solve it by guess and check. Never underestimate the power that a good problem has to entice kids to want to know more about the mathematics involved. Sometimes (and I am not saying all the time) we need to work on the demand side in education, on the why, on the context of how learning to think in different ways applies to the lives of our students.

Emphasizing algorithms without providing students opportunity to develop context or some level of intuitive understanding (or both) has significant negative consequences.

I don't mean to suggest that teaching algorithms on their own can't result in students performing better on a type of problem. The human brain handles repetition extremely so well that learning to do one skill through repetition is not necessarily a bad way to learn to do that one thing.

One problem I see with this has to do with transferring this skill to something new, especially when the depth of available skills is not great. Toss a weak student ten one-step equations of the form x + 3 = -8, and then give them something like 0.2 x = 25, and chances are that student won't solve it correctly without some level of intuition about the subtle differences between the two. Getting this right takes practice and feedback really good opportunity for students to be reflective of their process.

It is also far too easy when applying an algorithm to stop thinking critically about intermediate steps. I spoke to a colleague this week about his students learning long division and we both questioned the idea that the algorithm itself teaches place value. We looked at a student's paper that was sitting on the desk and instantly found an example of how the algorithm was incorrectly applied but through a second error resulted in a correct answer. If we teach algorithms too much without giving activities that allow students to show some sort of understanding of some aspect of how the algorithm fits into their existing mathematical knowledge, it's undercutting a real opportunity to get students to think rather than compute. I like the concepts pushed by the Computer-Based Math movement in using computers to compute as they do best, and leave the thinking (currently the strength of the human brain) to those possessing one.

As often as we can, it is important to get students to interact with the numbers they are manipulating. Teaching the algorithms for multiplying and adding large numbers does provide students with useful tools and does reinforce basic one digit arithmetic. I get worried sometimes when I hear about students going home and doing hundreds of these problems on their own for various reasons. If they enjoy doing it, that's great, though I think we could introduce them to some other activities that they might see as equally if not more stimulating.

I do believe to some extent that full understanding is not necessary to move forward in mathematics, or any subject for that matter. I took a differential equations course in college trying to really understand things, and my first exam score was in the seventies, not what I wanted. I ended up memorizing a lot after that point and did very well for the rest of the course. It wasn't until a systems design course I took the following year that I actually grasped many of the concepts that eluded me during the first exposure. This same thing worked for me in high school when I took my first honors track math class after being behind for a couple years. My teacher told me at one point to "memorize it if I didn't understand it" which worked that year as I was developing my skills. Over time, I did figure out how to make it make sense for myself, but that took work on my part.

Uses of technology to apply/show/explore mathematical reasoning comprise the best public relations tool that mathematics has and desperately needs.

I really enjoyed reading Gary Rubenstein's recent post about the difference between "math" and mathematics. I read it and agreed and have been thinking a lot along the lines of his entry since then.

Too many people say "I'm not good at math." What they likely mean is that they aren't good at computing. Or algorithms. Or they aren't good at ________ where __________ is a set of steps that someone tried to teach them in school to solve a certain type of problem.

On the other end of the perceived "math" ability spectrum, parents are proud that their children come home and do hundreds of math problems during their free time. These students take the biggest numbers they can find and add them together or multiply them and then show their parents who are impressed that their normally distracted kids are able to focus on these tasks long enough to do them correctly.

It makes sense that most people, when asked to describe their experiences in math, describe pencil and paper algorithms and repetitive homework sets because that's what their teachers spent their time doing. This, unfortunately, is the repetitive skills development process that is part of mathematical learning, but should not be the main course of any class. We show what we value by how we spend our time - if we spend our time on algorithmic thinking, then this is what students will think that we as teachers and as thinkers value as being important in mathematics.

This fact is one of the main reasons I started thinking how to change my class structure. My students were talking about not being good at a certain type of problem ("I don't get this problem...I can't do problems that need you to...") rather than having difficulties with concepts ("I don't get why linear functions have constant slope...I don't get why x^2 + 9 is not factorable while x^2 - 9 is).

If we as teachers want students to value mathematics as more than learning a set of problems to be solved on a test, then we have to invest time into those activities that allow students to experience other types of mathematical thinking. This is where technology shines. The videos of Vi Hart, Wolfram Alpha, the antics of Dan Meyer, the Wolfram Demonstrations Project, the amazing capabilities of Geogebra - all of these offer different dimensions of what mathematical thinking really is all about.

We can share these with students and say "check these out tonight" at the end of a lesson and hope that students do so. Sometimes that works for a couple students. That isn't enough.

I think we need to invest in technology with our students with our time. We need to deliberately use valuable class time to take them through how to use it and why it makes us excited to use it with them. It's really the only way students will believe us. Show that it's important, don't just tell your students it is. That's right - that valuable class time that we often plan out too carefully and structure so that they reach the well-defined goals we have for them - that time. Plan to use a specific amount of class time, and enough time, to let students play around with a mathematical idea using any of the amazing technology tools out there. Show them how you play with the tools yourself, but don't make this the focus of this time - do so afterwards, perhaps.

To be clear - I am not saying do this all the time. Students need to learn algorithms, as I have already stated. Students also need to be looking at interesting problems. We should not wait to show them these problems until after students have demonstrated automaticity because it gives students the impression that the algorithms came before the thinking that went into them.

I am saying that balance is key.

The only way we are going to change the perception of what mathematical thinking really looks like is by living it and sharing it with our students.