Technology, math, and the fun factor

As a teacher who loves math, loves technology, and loves to see fruitful interactions between the two, stuff like this frustrates the living crap out of me:

Over the past two school years, the grant money has purchased hand-held Palm personal digital assistants (PDAs) for each student in the seventh and eighth grades in both Red Bank and Keyport, and the students have used these computers in many different aspects of their schooling.

Seventh-grade teacher Denise Borns said she is very pleased with the tools the grant has provided both for herself and her students.[…]

Borns said that she has used the new technology the grant has provided for her class, both software and hardware, on class trips as well as in the classroom.

“Last year,” she said, “we went on a walking trip to Marine Park and Riverside Gardens Park and did some geocaching. At the end of the year we went to Sandy Hook and the students did some geocaching there. Each year, we’ve built on what we did the year before.”[…]

The eighth-graders who presented at last month’s board meeting were students in Borns’ class last year, and explained how they have used technology to learn about directions, graphing and problem solving, and having fun while doing it.

The article goes on to describe how much fun the students had on their geocaching field trips, how cool technology is, how much fun they had, how they made PowerPoint presentations… and did I mention that they had a lot of fun?

What’s frustrating to me about this is that the technology here is not being used as an instrument to understand something important about mathematics, but rather it’s almost being used as a replacement for mathematics. We’re using technology not in the math class but instead of having the math class at all. And the reasons for using the technology in this way are (a) fun, (b) as means of getting grant money, and (c) publicity, in that order.

It’s not that fun is bad. Learning itself is fun. And that’s why this is frustrating — I don’t see any mathematics learning taking place here. Perhaps it just doesn’t make good copy, so it wasn’t reported. But when technology can be used as a tool for students to dig deep into the core of mathematics — and instead it’s used as an expensive toy — that’s not good in the long term for anybody. The cute and exciting images of 8th-grades running PowerPoint slide shows from their PDA’s sounds great, but are they actually learning the hard skills they need for their futures? Sounds like style over substance, and that’s a long way from what technology actually could and should be in the math classroom.

[Hat Tip: Right on the Left Coast]


Filed under Education, High school, Teaching, Technology

3 responses to “Technology, math, and the fun factor

  1. Just another liberal professor

    Ugggghh….these poor kids are being crippled by this idiotic “math” class. They aren’t doing mathematics in that class, they’re button pushing (which is the same thing that I can say about students who depend on their calculators).

    I think I need a drink….

  2. JimMc

    You sure have to wonder, since no mention is made of how this fits in with the curriculum or how they measure any educational gains made from using the technology, if this is just technology used for the sake of technology.

    Newspaper articles often leave out a lot of boring details (for obvious reasons) so it’s hard to know what transpired here. But if I’m a board member, this doesn’t sound all that different from kids going “teacher gave us hammers and we smashed some glass. hammers are cool. smashing glass is cool.”

  3. I am of the hopeful opinion that the newspaper did not report everything that the students are doing with math and handheld computing. There are so many pieces of software (much of it free) for handhelds that can help students understand, explore, and extend math concepts.

    I taught fifth graders with Palm handhelds. We used them for all subjects and they were especially helpful in writing and math. Right at their desks, in field, on the floor, or at home, students could create and manipulate spreadsheet data, practice math facts, reinforce mental math, visualize geometry, animate story problems, and so much more. I never changed the math curriculum — the technology helped my students learn it. Sure, it was fun, engaging, and motivating. Handhelds, used properly, can be a effective learning tool.