Sunday, July 31, 2011

Using laptops in my classroom - is it real maths?

The following is the first of two short reflections on some recent experiences using (or not using) laptops in my maths teaching. I used these as openers to a recent presentation about one-to-one laptops in the mathematics classroom to show some of the upcoming themes.

I am big fan of using software and the internet in the classroom to enrich mathematics teaching and learning, so I was a little surprised when I caught myself being skeptical about getting my class to try out a new interactive application from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.  Just a few days ago, a colleague eagerly showed me Spotlight, an interesting and engaging site that allows the user to explore past census data presented in the context of their own demographics. My colleague suggested we should do this as an activity with our two top year 9 classes.
A colleague tells me about the new ABS Spotlight application ...
but it is "good enough" for my top year 9 class?
I'm slightly embarrassed to say my initial instinct was that while it was a fun and interesting application, it wasn't really 'serious enough math' for my top year 9 class. Some sort of pride kicked in - these students needed to do 'real maths'. That evening at home I logged onto the social network my school system uses, and into the maths group where around a hundred and thirty maths teachers hang out (sad isn't it? :-) ). And what do I find but other maths teachers raving about Spotlight? One  teacher pointed out there were two versions of the app - one without sound - which might make it better for in-class use. They also referenced some of their other favourite statistics resources, including Hans Rosling's amazing 200 Countries, 200 Years in 4 minutes - which happens to also be one of my favourites, so I thought perhaps I ought to take this idea seriously! And I figured it was time to go apologise to my colleague...

Thinking about my top year 9 maths class, we actually haven't been doing that much with the laptops - the students all have digital versions of their textbook on it, and we sometimes do activities with Excel or using edmodo - but so far we haven't actually done that much in class with the laptops.. Which is kind of surprising given how much I like using technology. Partly I put it down to the fact we haven't done topics yet suitable for my favourite tool GeoGebra - but it's still surprising.  So our class did spend a period on the Spotlight site, and then exploring the ABS Census information. Before I realised it, we were having some quality discussion about the political and social reasons for the census, political controversies in the United States about counting homeless people and the use of sampling to fill in the gaps, and how in Australia we didn't even count our indigenous people until recently. I realised what a rich topic this was going to be - and the potential for students to do a quality mathematical and social investigation using the ABS website.

So what does this little story highlight? Quite a few things that are important in the one-to-one laptop discussion:
  • Even when the teacher is keen on technology, there still isn't necessarily much use of the laptops in many mathematics classrooms,
  • The idea that 'real maths' is done in the traditional way is buried very deep inside us - no matter how differently we think we feel about learning maths. It's the way we were brought up and sometimes anything that's not pure abstract symbolic manipulation, expressed on paper in exercise books, or presented by the teacher .. well it just doesn't feel like top level maths.
  • The important role of a professional learning network (PLN) to encourage quality use of technology. Hearing other teachers give positive feedback about their own very specific use of an idea or application, in the specific syllabus area you are working in makes a huge difference
  • A wonderful thing about having laptops in the classroom is I was able to make a very quick decision to do the Spotlight activity. If the students weren't bringing in their laptops, I would have had to try to book a computer lab - and most likely had a two-week waiting time, the hassle of moving the class there,  hoping all the computers were working ....  
  • Why did the students have their laptops ready to go? Because they use them in place of lugging their textbooks around. As mundane as it may seem, offering students the ability to use digital copies of their books greatly increases the chance they will come equipped with their laptops, and fully charged. Certainly for those classes where the students want to do mathematics. (And that's another story for later).
The next post in this sequence will consider our willingness to hand over control of the technology to students, and then I will look at the current situation of laptops in the mathematics classroom as reported by several major research studies.

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