Beyond the Bells and Whistles: Using iPads and other devices in primary mathematics classrooms

This week my new book, Engaging Maths: iPad Activities for Teaching and Learning, was published so I thought I would write about some of the thinking behind the book, which provides a range of teaching and learning ideas based on my research on student engagement and the effective use of mobile technologies.

As a teacher educator, I was very excited by the introduction of iPads back in 2010 and the prospect of using these devices to teach primary mathematics. Having been a primary school teacher for some years before beginning my career as an academic, I sensed that many teachers would be dazzled and distracted by the number of applications (apps) available for use (particularly in mathematics). I was keen to investigate how the tablets were being used in classrooms, particularly as there appeared to be little or no professional development opportunities relating to the pedagogical considerations involved in using the devices, due to their newness. So I conducted two research studies, each six months long, in two different schools where iPads were being introduced (Attard, 2013; Attard & Curry, 2012). I investigated the ways teachers used the devices in their mathematics lessons and I spoke to teachers and students about their perception of iPads.

Not surprisingly, the introduction of the iPads did seem to result in higher levels of student engagement. Another benefit described by the participating teachers was that the students had begun to engage with mathematics more at home. They did this by downloading the same apps that were being used in their mathematics lessons.

The teachers involved in both studies recognised that iPads hold the potential to enhance mathematics teaching and learning due to their wide range of affordances that include a vast variety of applications, ease of use, and their ubiquitous nature. However, they found it challenging to incorporate creative iPad use into mathematics lessons when compared to their integration into other subject areas such as English and science. During the course of the two studies, the teachers tended to rely on apps that are specifically designed for mathematics, but focused on a drill and practice approach that simply replaced the repetition of a standard worksheet or textbook page with some added animation and colour. Sometimes the apps that were used in the observed mathematics lessons were based on games, with little or no opportunity for students to develop their problem solving skills or being able to reflect on their learning, and limited opportunities for the teachers to capture evidence of learning.

These challenges could have been addressed with the support of professional development and an opportunity to share ideas with other teachers. As one teacher stated: “it’s probably about having that conversation with other teachers.” It must also be acknowledged that at the time of the studies, iPads were a very new technology and professional development relating specifically to iPads and mathematics was not readily available and perhaps is still not sufficiently available five years after their introduction. Having said that, professional development opportunities should not simply focus on specific devices. Rather, due to the rapid pace of technology development, they should be focused on understanding the pedagogy related to the incorporation of any type of technology, and the development of teachers’ Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (Koehler & Mishra, 2009).

Although my new book has the word ‘iPads’ in its title, the theory underpinning the ideas and strategies apply to any technology, and in fact, any new resource you are considering using. The activities within the book can be adapted to suit different devices, different content, and a diversity of learners. More importantly, the book is intended as a form of professional learning for teachers struggling with finding meaningful, creative and powerful ways to use technology to enhance the teaching and learning of mathematics. Remember, don’t be distracted by bells and whistles: technology is only as good as the pedagogy driving it – careful consideration must be taken to ensure the focus remains on the learning, rather than on the technology.

Attard, C. (2013). Introducing iPads into Primary Mathematics Pedagogies: An Exploration of Two Teachers’ Experiences. In V. Steinle, L. Ball, & C. Bardini (Eds.), Mathematics education: Yesterday, today and tomorrow (Proceedings of the 36th Annual conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia) (pp. 58-65), Melbourne: MERGA

Attard C., & Curry, C. (2012) Exploring the use of iPads to engage young students with mathematics, In J. Dindyal, L. P. Cheng, & S. F. Ng (Eds.), Mathematics Education: Expanding Horizons. (Proceedings of the 35th annual conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia), pp 75-82. Singapore: MERGA.

Koehler, M. J., & Mishra, P. (2009). What is technological pedagogical content knowledge? Contemporary Issues in Technoogy and Teacher Education, 9(1), 60-70.

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