Larry Cuban had an interesting post on “Predictions about Technology in K-12 and Higher Education for 2024”. So I sat and thunk. I have been teaching for about 30 years with a few deviations here and there. What changes in those 30 years have I seen in teaching methods and material that technology has caused? I have been teaching math so that has to be my primary personal reference, and I have only taught in three different high school schools so that will shade my outlook to some extent.
Thirty years has given me a chance to see the evolution of technology in education. In high school I used a slide rule. High tech was a bigger slide rule. My first true experience with classroom technology was a calculator that was actually programmable. It was a civil engineering course at a junior college and the technology was cutting edge. The school had one and it looked like an old electric adding machine. The programs were stored on an 8-track. The calculator was a huge time saver for closing a property survey. Did this tech change the way the course was taught? Not really, we still learned the hand methods. And we did not trust the calculator results.
My next classroom tech was with my first teaching job in 1984. (I graduated HS in 1970 but with the combination of the Marines, various jobs and wanting to go to college as long as possible I got a pretty late start on the teaching career.) The room had 2 Apple IIes and 2 Radio Shack TRS-80s. There were some fun math games (Green Globs was a favorite) but there was no change in how or what I taught in mathematics. This was the very beginning of the graphing calculators in the classroom. I was a big fan because we could now actually see the graphs of functions and find roots without tedious algorithms. Good old Dolciani and Saxon. Repetition and memorization of techniques were still the methods of the day.
Next it was back to the university for the Masters in Math Ed and teaching intro math courses at the university. Most of the tenured math profs and many of the adjuncts considered the graphing calculator a form of cheating. Students should use their brains, not one of them calculator things. I was a rabble rouser. If I wanted to find the max or min of a function, I used the calculator to find an approximation instead of an algorithm that found a worst approximation. I would assume my students had them. If they did not they were welcome to use hand methods. They bought calculators. It was not changing what I was teaching, just how I was finding some of the answers. FOIL and memorizing the quadratic formula were still hot. (FOIL (First, Outside, Inside, Last) to me is an excellent representation of what is wrong with HS math education. It works in one trivial problem type that technology has made inconsequential. FOIL destroys what little value there actually is in learning to multiplying two binomials.) During this time the SIMMS project was starting up. SIMMS was a technology based curriculum that was attempting to change how math was taught and what math was taught. SIMMS wanted to teach how to derive needed math, not memorize needed math, and used the graphing calculator extensively. A whole new paradigm for teachers to learn and very much out of most teachers comfort zone. SIMMS struggled, then died, then was somewhat reborn to look much like a traditional math curriculum. This is also the time when Texas Instruments introduced the TI-92. An affordable algebraic manipulator (Wolfram was out but was very expensive) that could do most of a high school precalc textbook by typing. Say it ain’t so! Panic ensued. High school teachers confiscated the things and banned them. I owned one two days after they hit the market. At the time I was taking an upper level stats course that was pretty heavy on calculus. I started using the thing in class and answering computational questions before the rest of the class had written the problem down. My professor wanted to borrow the thing. He was excited because he said he could now teach stats instead of algebra and calculus. The precalc and calc teachers saw it as a possible job killer. The TI-92 (and subsequent TI-89) were banned. The technology was there but there was absolutely no inclination to change teaching methods or material. FOIL was still king.
Status quo was being maintained. The 92 and 89 were still a bit pricy and were still not popular in HS math classrooms, especially lower algebra classes where those “necessary skills” were being taught. (Is multiplying two binomials by hand really a “necessary skill”?) Now to add insult to injury comes along WolframAlpha. Panic ensues again. The “necessary skills” in HS Algebra I, Algebra II and Precalc are really under pressure. You can type almost anything in the box and an answer will pop out. And all the kids have access to a computer. After all, it is the computer age and computers are supposed to change how and what we teach. The approach to the Wolframalpha issue was to stay quiet and maybe the kids will not find out about it. Like that is a good solution.
Now back to the original direction of this blog, where will technology take the math curriculum by 2024. Experience has indicated to me it will take us nowhere. High school math content is almost identical to what it was 10 years, 20 years and even 50 years ago. Traditionalist will still be fighting tooth and nail to maintain those 300 year old “necessary skills”. By “traditionalists” I am referring to math teachers that are comfortable with what they know how to do, publishers that sell traditional math textbook and make really big money doing it, school boards that know how math should be taught because they were in high school 40 years ago, math methods professors who have not seen a HS classroom in 15 years and believe “technology in the classroom” means a Smartboard, and worst of all, standardized test writers (and by implication those who think a standardized test is useful for anything other than finding out who can take a standardized test). For technology to truly change the way and what math is taught we would have to throw out the baby with the bath water. There are just so many of those “necessary skills” (about 80% of a high school math curriculum) that are no longer skills in the Wolframalpha world. The massive changes need to evolve the present curriculum to a true technology aware curriculum would have to happen in K – 16, which is not likely.
The big counter argument to the technology driven curriculum is the “black box” argument. If all the kids have to do is type into a magic box then they will never understand the foundations of how things work. I can remember the same argument when the calculator became affordable. “Kids will not know who to multiply anymore!” Well, they do not know how sharpen a feather quill or how to change a typewriter ribbon any more either. When I was in high school a necessary skill was finding square roots using an algorithm or using a CRC manual to look them up (along with sine, cosine and tangent). Technology has changed that but we are still doing the exact same problems in the textbooks.
Change in education moves like glacier. I fear in 10 years the methods and material taught are going to be totally recognizable to a teacher from the 1960’s. And I am an optimist.