Saturday, August 20, 2011

Am I being too negative (about you-know-what)?

Some days will be rainy days.
So am I being too negative in my recent posts about what I believe are some of the barriers to using laptops in mathematics classrooms?  Some responses to recent feedback. Please feel encouraged to contradict (or support) by posting a comment!

I'm an unashamed enthusiast about laptops. I'm thrilled to have students with laptops in my classroom - along with my Interactive Whiteboard and my HoverCam we can go many places which would be much harder to do without them. I can't imagine not having the technology - and I'm frustrated on a daily basis that my Year 7 and Year 8 students don't have laptops. But what about teachers who aren't so keen on the laptops?

An honest appraisal of what is happening is a prerequisite to understanding and to encouraging change. I really don't think this is being negative. Mathematics teachers have reasons for not using the laptops - they are motivated by concern for the best learning outcomes for their students. I'm not saying I agree with those reasons, but I respect and understand these views. In many of my interviews with teachers not using the laptops, they shared their strong sense of hurt and feelings of being ridiculed or ignored by their technology-enthusiast colleagues.  I suggest we need to work with those concerns - and not avoid discussing them.

About the evidence:
  • Where is the evidence for lower use in mathematics classrooms? See the references in the earlier post - they are the major longitudinal studies done in the US. They are conducted by researchers with an active interest and long term commitment to studying 1:1 programs, some of whom have been involved in technology and education study for decades - and typically with a positive disposition to the programs. Their evidence is credible.
  • Isn't that old evidence? Yes and no. These reports were published between 2005 and 2010 - and most likely this data was already a year old when published, however, they do reflect findings after many years of 1:1 laptop programs in the USA. In my personal experience, I do see laptop usage increasing over time - I see it in my own faculty - so we can hope there is greater use being made of these new resources.
  • Aren't we different in Australia? Yes and no. We do have a lot more support in our 1:1 programs, with major funding for professional development, great technical support and a vast array of teacher support resources. The challenge is not the funding - the challenge is engaging a time-poor and typically conservative profession to participate in the change.
  • "But you only looked at a few schools". Absolutely - I was an honours student with a research budget of $0. I make no claim to a representative sample or exhaustive research. All I can say is: "Do  my findings suggest credible reasons why we have lower levels of use of the laptops in mathematics classrooms? Are they consistent with existing research on 1:1 laptop, with mathematics teacher responses to curriculum and technology change?"  There is a wide body of evidence, beyond the studies of 1:1 programs, about mathematics teacher beliefs in their response to technology and curriculum change. In considering our response to mathematics curriculum change, the work of Michael Cavanaugh (2006) is particularly interesting. For recent comprehensive longitudinal research on mathematics teacher beliefs in relation to technology, see the work by Australian researchers Goos and Bennison (2007, 2008) and Pierce and Ball (2009).
  • What I'm not saying in my research: I make no claims my work can be generalised to all schools:  my sample is too small, the duration of the work too short, the methodology too limited. I make no claims on laptop usage or teacher beliefs for other school subjects - I haven't read or studied any of this material. And I make no claim about outcomes or the value of 1:1 laptop programs.
  • Why pay attention to this exploratory research? It may offer some insights into the reasons behind the previously established lower levels of laptop use by mathematics teachers in their classrooms - and may help us consider what to do about it. There is something different about mathematics when it comes to 1:1 laptops - and the question needs answering. I argue some key beliefs unique to mathematics education in combination with some specific mathematics teaching practices create a strong barrier to widespread adoption of the laptops.
  • "In my faculty we use the laptops all the time with all our classes". Yes - there are mathematics faculties where full use of the laptops is being made, where teachers are actively collaborating and supporting each other. We need to get their stories out into the wider mathematics teaching community - told by maths teachers to other maths teachers. And remember : many of the teachers not using the laptops with their students aren't online. Talk to some maths teachers who are not in your online network, who are not in your faculty (if your faculty is one of those actively collaborating on using the laptops) - ask them the questions: What does a student need to do to learn maths? Which  classes will most benefit from exploration activities? Which classes will get most benefit from using the laptops? I think you may be surprised - as I was.
  • Won't discussing barriers to laptop usage pander to those who don't want the laptops? People hostile to laptops don't need me to justify their reasons - they have more than enough arguments already. And they probably aren't reading my blog :-) Indeed, it's unlikely you are reading this blog if you are strongly skeptical about using technology for mathematics learning.
So - what can we do? Talk to our mathematics teacher colleagues about the things that concern them - not us.  Better yet - don't talk - show.  Show ways in which laptops can and are successfully used with lower achieving students. Show how laptop use can be integrated into current pen-and-paper practices. Just today I read a great post about getting students to keep a learning journal while doing online learning. Small changes and practical ideas like this can make a big difference in encouraging teachers to try out the technology.

Last word goes to a more experienced and no doubt wiser colleague @Deborah_morton. How do we present the message?  Deborah Morton suggests there are three key elements needed in a presenter of ideas trying to encourage change:  inspiration, trust in the presenter and evidence it works. We can do this!

Do you have a story about using the laptops in a mathematics classroomm you would like to share but don't have time to get a blog going to share the it? Happy to give you a guest slot here!

Further reading
Cavanagh, M. (2006). Mathematics teachers and working mathematically: Responses to curriculum change, in  G. Grootenboer, R. Zevenbergen & M. Chinnappan (Eds.), Identities, Cultures and Learning Spaces (Proceedings of the 28th annual conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia) Vol 1, pp. 115-122. Melbourne: MERGA.

Goos, M., & Bennison, A. (2007). Technology-enriched teaching of secondary mathematics: Factors influencing innovative practice. In J. Watson & K. Beswick (Eds.), Mathematics: Essential Research, Essential Practice — Volume 1, Proceedings of the 30th Annual Conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia (pp.315-324).  Wahroonga: MERGA.

Goos, M., & Bennison, A. (2008). Surveying the technology landscape: Teachers’ use of technology in secondary mathematics Classrooms. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 20,(3), 102-130.

Pierce, R., & Ball, L. (2009). Perceptions that may affect teachers’ intention to use technology in secondary mathematics classes. Educational Studies in Mathematics, (71)3, 299-317

Weston, M.E., & Bain, A. (2010). The end of techno-critique: The naked truth about 1:1 laptop initiatives and educational change. Journal of Technology, Learning and Assessment, 9(6), 5-25. Retrieved Aug 14, 2011 from


  1. For me the transition to Students working with laptops was easy because I purposely try to avoid too much of both "chalk and talk" and textbook/drill methodologies. I work hard to teach for understanding rather than repetition. I can understand why teachers who are heavily reliant on these 2 methods would be questioning the point or the value of them- laptops add very little and can be quite cumbersome if that's how you teach.

    Laptops support exploratory learning, experimentation and other more kinasthetic, visual and auditory learning styles in ways we could only previously dreamed of.

    Dare I say it... It's possibly not the low usage of laptops we should be querying but rather the continued and persistent use of a singular, almost outdated, teaching style.

  2. I'm only new to your writing and have not had the chance to read through your material. So, I'm not answering the question in your title.

    However, thought you might like to know about a (most?) recent editorial in the British Journal of Educational Technology entitled "In praise of pessimism—the need for negativity in educational technology"

    The first page can be seen here

    I've only given it a brief skim but it look like it might resonate.

  3. @Miss Morton. Agree totally - that was the third belief+practice combo I referred to. However I did make it the third because although it's not what you and I would do, it is in theory possible to get good use out of the laptops even with traditional techniques. I made a decision a while ago not to critique traditional teaching - there is a place for it - my mentors constantly remind about the need for balance in our practice.

    @davidtjones : Thanks for that reference - it's definitely a hazard of the field :) I would love to read more of that article but not longer enrolled at University so those journal articles are locked behind a subscription firewall to me (getting most annoyed at that). I just discovered an interesting PhD thesis by J McDonald on a related aspect: "Technology I, II, and III: Criteria for understanding and improving the practice of instructional technology" - check out Google Scholar for the link.

  4. You spend a lot of time on a question that Popper addressed four decades ago- the incommensurable nature of different epistemological paradigms. Sure your research was not gold standard best-evidence quality but you were not claiming to produce that evidence. Instead you were taking a practice-based view of a problem already identified in the best-evidence type databases. You don't need to constantly defend that position.

    As for being "negative". If the sheltered world of Twitter cannot handle intellectual critique then you should not waste your time sharing anything of depth in there. I like Negative Nordin.