The Reflective Educator

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Computers should transform mathematics education

Stephen Shankland posted an interesting article on CNET today. Here is an exerpt from his article, which you should read in full. He says:

Clearly, children need some understanding on their own of math, and reliance on a computer has a lot of drawbacks. But computers can also aid those who otherwise would fall by the mathematical wayside, or let people with more advanced abilities bypass drudgery and move on to the challenging material. Graphing calculators can let many students explore curves and functions that realistically they’d more likely ignore if they had to plot them by hand.

My response to some of the negative comments about his article is:

Some of you have decided that using technology to handle calculations in mathematics is going to weaken student’s understanding of mathematics. I have to tell you, our student’s understanding of mathematics, and even the vast majority of people’s understanding of what mathematics is pretty bad. Awful. Horrible. I mean, really, really bad.

Mathematics is not about calculations. Mathematics is about understanding how our world works through the lens of logical reasoning and pattern forming, and then communicating our understanding of that process to other people.

Calculations are a tool in mathematics to understand a process. In my opinion, I want students to understand the processes and ideas that mathematics represents, not the calculations which short-cut that understanding.

Here’s an example that Gary Stager suggested to highlight this problem. Ask a typical math teacher to explain to you why "you invert the 2nd fraction and multiply instead" when dividing two fractions works. Ask them to explain the concept behind "inverting and multiplying" two fractions, and you know what, they can’t. They’ve learned a recipe for doing a calculation but have no conceptual understanding of why that rule works, and these are people who are teaching our children about mathematics!

We need to move away from the mindset that the most important part of the mathematics curriculum we teach is the rote calculations which can generally be done much faster on a computer, and towards the mindset that students need to be able to formulate problems, decide on appropriate mathematics to use to solve these problems, and then do the calculations on an appropriate device, and finally check that these solutions make sense. These are the steps that Conrad Wolfram and Dan Meyer (in their TED talks) outline as crucial to mathematical understanding, and I completely agree.

Mathematics education needs to change. Those people who want a "back to basics" approach and get rid of the calculators seem to think that this will improve the mathematics education in our schools. This is flatly not true.

If you ask a random sample of people, they either "weren’t very good at mathematics" and generally hated it, or a very small minority loved it. This opinion spans all age groups and goes back many years, far before the introduction of calculators in schools. If we judge the success of an educational approach by the number of people who enjoy working in a subject, why are so many people who were exposed to that approach before the introduction of calculators hate mathematics so much?

Maybe we need to rethink our approach?