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Technology in the classroom can improve primary mathematics

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There’s much more to mathematics than computation, and that’s where more contemporary technologies can improve primary mathematics.
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Catherine Attard, Western Sydney University

Many parents are beginning to demand less technology use in the primary classroom due to the amount of screen time children have at home. This raises questions about whether technology in the classroom helps or hinders learning, and whether it should be used to teach maths.

Blaming the calculator for poor results

We often hear complaints that children have lost the ability to carry out simple computations because of the reliance on calculators in primary schools. This is not the case. In fact, there has been very little research conducted on the use of calculators in classrooms since the 80’s and 90’s because they are not a significant feature of primary school maths lessons. When calculators are used in primary classrooms, it’s usually to help children develop number sense, to investigate number patterns and relationships, or to check the accuracy of mental or written computation.

There is also evidence that children become more flexible in the way they compute through the use of calculators. It allows them to apply their knowledge of place value and other number related concepts rather than using a traditional algorithm.

The Australian Curriculum promotes a strong focus on the development of numeracy, including the development of estimation and mental computation. These are skills that children need in order to use calculators and other technologies efficiently.

The curriculum also promotes the thinking and doing of mathematics (referred to as “proficiencies”) rather than just the mechanics. There’s much more to mathematics than computation. That’s where more contemporary technologies can improve primary mathematics.

The importance of technology in learning maths

The use of digital technologies in the primary mathematics classroom is not an option. The Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has made it mandatory for teachers to incorporate technologies in all subject areas. Fortunately, schools have access to more powerful, affordable devices than ever before. Importantly, these are the same devices that many children already have access to at home, providing an opportunity to bridge the gap between the mathematics at school and their lives outside the classroom.

Literature around digital technologies and mathematics suggest new technologies have potentially changed teaching and learning, providing opportunities for a shift of focus from a traditional view to a more problem-solving approach. This notion is supported by research that claims the traditional view of mathematics that was focused on memorisation and rote learning is now replaced with one that has purpose and application.

When used well, technology can improve student engagement with mathematics and assists in improving their understanding of mathematical concepts.

In a recent research evaluation of the Matific digital resources, the findings were positive. The students found that they enjoyed using the digital resource on iPads and computers, and went from thinking about mathematics as something to be tolerated or endured to something that is fun to learn. An added bonus was that the children voluntarily started to use their screen time at home to do maths. Pre- and post-test data also indicated that the use of the technology contributed to improved mathematics results.

How technology is used in the classroom

Many would consider that the use of mobile devices in maths would consist of simple game playing. A search of the App Store reveals tens of thousands of supposedly educational maths games, creating a potential app trap for teachers who might spend hours searching through many low- quality apps. Although playing games can have benefits in terms of building fluency, they don’t usually help children learn new concepts. Luckily, there’s much that teachers can and are doing with technology.

The following are some of the different ways teachers are using technology:

Show and tell apps, such as Explain Everything, EduCreations or ShowMe, allow students to show and explain the solution to a mathematical problem using voice and images

– Flipped learning, where teachers use the technology to replace traditional classroom instruction. YouTube videos or apps that provide an explanation of mathematical concepts are accessed by students anywhere and anytime

– Subscription based resource packages such as Matific which provide interactive, game-based learning activities, allow the teacher to set activities for individual students and keep track of student achievement

– Generic apps (camera, Google Earth, Google Maps, Geocaching) that allow students to explore mathematics outside the classroom.

The ConversationJust as the world has changed, the mathematics classroom has also changed. Although technology is an integral part of our lives, it shouldn’t be the only resource used to teach maths. When it comes to technology in the classroom, it’s all about balance.

Catherine Attard, Associate Professor, Mathematics Education, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

For a list of maths apps, click here:

iPad apps and Mathematics 2015

Primary Mathematics: Making the Most of Technology to Assess Student Learning

As the school year rapidly draws to a close, many teachers are beginning the task of reporting student achievement. For some, there may be a scramble to collect assessment data, and often, due to a sense of panic, teachers revert to pen and paper testing to gain a snapshot of their students’ ability measured against syllabus outcomes…one of the main reasons students develop a dislike of mathematics in the first place. The purpose of this blog post is to ask you to consider using alternative assessment evidence, and in particular, consider taking advantage of some of the educational software tools you may already be using in your classroom.

Regardless of what technological devices you use, if you do use technology in your mathematics lessons, chances are you already have some good assessment data that you can use in your reporting. Take, for example, the use of apps on an iPad or other mobile device. If your students are engaging in different apps to either build on their mathematical fluency (typically game-type apps) or to express mathematical reasoning and communication (with apps such as Explain Everything, Educreations or ShowMe), then it’s rather easy to collect evidence of learning. Some apps offer the affordance of being able to save student progress, and others simply require students to take a screen shot of their results.

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Educreations allows you to save files that record audio and written mathematics, allowing assessment of content and process outcomes.

I recently conducted a research evaluation of the Matific suite of resources (access the research report here). One of Matific’s affordances is that it allows teachers to track student progress.

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The Matific website allows teachers to view assessment data in a number of ways

Interestingly, out of the 16 teachers involved in the study, only nine teachers used the ability to track student achievement and even fewer considered using it as assessment data. However, those who did use this affordance, considered it a valuable tool that allowed them to differentiate future tasks, tailoring the learning for individual student needs:

It was perfect in a sense that we made it a point that we started at the middle and we went down for those who needed extra support, which was fabulous because they were still doing it visually, they were doing the exact same thing, and then we also gave the option that they could go up if they felt confident enough but at the same time visually, it was exactly the same for those kids that don’t want to be different, that maybe do need that little bit of extra support (Year 6 teacher). 

Data from students’ interactions with educational apps such as Matific, game apps and productivity apps can provide valuable formative and summative assessment data that can remove the anxiety associated with formal pen and paper testing, particularly during the primary years when it’s critical that we foster high levels of student engagement. Consider the apps you currently use – how can you collect evidence and use it to your advantage and the students’ advantage…and also save you time? Isn’t it better to spend class time on learning rather than testing?

Technology and Mathematics: Have you fallen into the App Trap?

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:

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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?