Five traps of technology

“Mathematics is not done with a computer. Mathematics is not done with pencil and paper. Mathematics is done with the brain.”

~ An anonymous participant of the Computer Based Mathematics Summit, London, 2011


The heart of mathematics education is ensuring that students develop both knowledge of mathematics (here is a definition of mathematics) and productive dispositions towards mathematics. The minimum test for us to apply when considering the use of technology in mathematics education is this: “How does this use of technology help develop students’ knowledge of mathematics and/or their productive dispositions towards mathematics?”


An early form of technology for mathematics, source : Wikipedia


There are five traps to avoid when using technology. The first trap is that students end up not learning mathematics but instead only learning how to use a particular technological tool. The second trap is that someone who knows the mathematics already can see the mathematical principles illustrated by a particular technological tool but that a novice does not see or use the tool the same as the expert and therefore does not experience the mathematics the same. The third trap is using technology solely to focus on recall and repetition since students often lose opportunities to see patterns across problems (it doesn’t do much for most students’ productive dispositions towards mathematics either). The fourth trap of technology is that it can isolate learners, both from each other and sometimes even from their teacher. The final trap is that technology can sometimes make it harder to see (or hear) how students understand mathematical ideas.

Here are some questions we should ask ourselves when deciding to use any particular piece of technology with our students:

  • Does using this technology help my students learn mathematics that they can use without the use of this technology?
  • How will someone who does not yet know the mathematics embedded within this technological tool see the mathematics?
  • Does this technology focus solely on the acquisition of a limited set of mathematical knowledge or is it possible for students to use deliberate practice to identify patterns across different problems and acquire new mathematical ideas?
  • Does this technology make it harder for my students to interact with each other and with me?
  • How will I learn how my students understand the mathematical ideas that are the focus of this lesson?


In a follow-up post, when I have more time, I’m hoping to share examples of technologies that fall into these traps and how I might change the technologies to avoid the trap or how I might change might change my teaching to circumvent the trap.




  • Number 5 is the killer, seeing as how teachers will fade away and “knowledge facilitators” with CBE will take over.

    Your captcha is weird

  • David Wees wrote:

    Yeah, sorry about the Captcha. Unfortunately otherwise I end up with mountains of spam comments.

    Trap number 5 is the one that technologists are typically the least knowledgeable about when they design technology and consequently the easiest one to overlook when choosing to use technology as a teacher. There are very few technologies currently available that make it easier to learn how my students understand the mathematics; most make it much harder unfortunately.

  • Another subtle issue I find is the difference in how math looks and feels in a screen environment.

    So, in Canvas, when my basic basic students enter an answer as “3,” Canvas changes it to 3.0000 …

    Problems are often lined up for the convenience of online formatting … so that “do the same thing to both sides of the equation” is done horizontally and you don’t get the visual “like terms to like terms” clarity (we also have students draw a line down from the equal sign to emphasize that no matter how lopsided things are, that’s the fulcrum, the “boundary between the countries”…)
    But I really like this list. Some days the trap is “the tech actually sucks but it’s what we have to use,” too (CONNECT)…

  • David Wees wrote:

    Yeah, that’s true Sue. This happens in a lot of online environments when we try to enter in information. Even things as simple as using a ^ symbol to mean exponentiation complicate matters for students, usually unnecessarily so

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