Technology in the classroom: A warm and fuzzy worm

Larry Cuban has one of the best blogs for creating head scratching questions.  His posts on school reform and classroom practice always make me sit back and think.  His latest post on “Have Silicon Valley Teachers Using Technology Daily Altered Their Classroom Practice?” really has me sitting and thinking.  Larry posted some of his “Yes” and “No” replies to his study and they are interesting.  It seems a consistent thread that the changes the teachers made are in how the material is presented (electronic textbooks, electronic handouts, better access to resources) and not a change how the topic is structured.  (By “structured” I mean teaching the same math (or whatever) the same way, just with an electronic textbook and on-line resources.)

I also follow Dan Meyer’s blog on Math Education.  I do not always agree with Dan’s views on use of technology in the classroom, some of his ideas are a bit too tech intensive for my mind, sometimes the math would be lost in the many issues that can happen when trying to teach with tech,  but they are always food for thought.  What I like about Dan’s approach is that his ideas are not just a fancier way of presenting the same math.  He suggests completely different approaches of teaching a broad concept.  For example using a phone camera to record the flight of a basketball, then derive the formula for parabola as opposed to memorize the general forms of the parabolic function then find ways to use it.  His approach is often looking at a problem then developing the math.  An approach I am a big fan of.

From what I can see in my small little world of western Montana, and from my broader reading, education has not changed with the introduction of technology in the classroom.  Things like interactive boards, electronic textbooks, clickers, and so on do not seem to have changed how the teacher waves their hands at the front of the room.  Are these “presentation” technologies really improving on how much a student understands and retains when they walk out of the classroom at the end of the period or two years down the road?  Does a digital book really make a difference other than the weight if the student’s backpack?

There have been changes in classroom practice, which fits under the umbrella of teaching, with the use of paperless classrooms, video presentations (Khan Academy like or home grown), clickers, interactive boards, iPads, 1-1 laptops and so on.  It still seems to me that a teacher from fifty years ago could step into the modern classroom and still operate comfortably.  No, they could not operate all the tech presentation devices but with a whiteboard they could easily teach the curriculum.  I am not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing.  It does seem strange to me that given the advances in tech we really have not changed the fundamental process of teaching most subjects.  The “sage on the stage” still seems to be the norm.  Is there nothing better?  I am not saying there is but with the years of education research with and without technology it just seems strange this is the preferred method for teaching. I know there are exceptions to the rule out there but those teachers that are exceptions seem to have developed their teaching methods independently through their own blood, sweat and tears.  Our student teachers are still coming in with the same fundamental teaching techniques I started with.

I remember the old saying “We teach how we are taught”.  Most of the present generation of teachers were not taught with technology and therefore use it as an add-on.  Presentation methods and maybe an easier way to hand out and collect homework are our concessions to technology.  Is this all tech in the classroom has to offer?

To really use the power of technology we would have to change how we measure learning success.  The present standardized tests would be worthless.  Using and teaching with technology assumes the student has access to said technology.  What would happen if a kid showed up at the ACT with a Chromebook in hand?  What a can of worms.  Now imagine the discussions out of the “let’s use technology to the fullest” approach.  Teachers would be up in arms immediately.  Math teachers would be making statements (and most make complete sense) such as: “Students should know how to do such and such by hand”, “Math is not a black box”, etc.  English teachers would have the plagiarism and file sharing issues to give them bad dreams.  Foreign language teachers would be out of a job.  Now let us bring in the economic issues.  Not every kid can afford a computer.  Not every school can afford to give out computers.  Staff training would be a nightmare.  All those standardized test companies would have to start from scratch.  Politicians would get involved and then things would turn into a real mess.

Somewhere in there is a dividing line as to how far we should go with tech in the schools.  In my math classes I assume a graphing calculator.  If they need the square root 3459 I assume they are going to use the calculator, i.e. the black box.  (When is the last time anyone found a square root using the long division looking algorithm? When is the last time you saw someone whip out a slide rule to compute a square root?  OK.  I admit it.  I have a slide rule in my brief case for these occasions but then I am old and weird.)  So the calculator is an approved technology.  How about WolframAlpha?  Not so much.  “It is the devils tool and will corrupt the minds of our youth.”  Or something to that effect.  I show my students WolframAlpha on day two of class.  If I want them to know the factors of some ugly polynomial, WolframAlpha it is.  I do not want my students wasting their time.  I am more into the “here is why we want the factors” and even that is getting a bit dated.

“Technology in the classroom” is such a warm and fuzzy at the moment.  Technology for enhancing teacher presentation and communication is expanding and is an accepted use of technology.  Since the graphing calculator was accepted, (we are still having issues with the algebraic computation calculators) students using technology to actually solve problems has sort of hit a brick wall.  Deploying the total power of technology to the classroom is right back to that can of worms.

I do have a solution to tech in the classroom.  Introduce whatever you are comfortable with and then hope for the best.  Hey, I did not claim it was a good solution.  I rarely get any of those.



3 Responses to “Technology in the classroom: A warm and fuzzy worm”

  1. alfredtwo Says:

    I have a slide rule on my desk at school but I forgot I could use it for square roots. Been far too long.

  2. gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

    I encourage students to use Wolfram Alpha in my electronics course—I expect them to be able to do optimization using derivatives, but I don’t care whether they have help with the calculus and algebra of actually doing the derivative. Unfortunately, most of them are completely clueless about how to set up an optimization (or, for that matter to do ANY multi-step problem).

    Math class should be less about learning procedures and more about learning how to put the pieces together to solve more complicated problems.

  3. gflint Says:

    Math education spends way too much time on the computational details and not enough on using those details. Why? Because it is so much easier to teach computation than multi-step problems. I am teaching multi-step in my stats course right now. 13 kids. 2 As, 3 Bs, 2 Cs, 3 Ds, 3 Fs. They have a rough time trying to read or understand multi-step directions. They have not had to do it in previous classes. It is not that they get the problems wrong, it is they just do not want to be bothered to do them at all.

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