When Technology Doesn’t Work

Canva-notechnologyI strongly believe that technology has an important place in mathematics teaching and learning. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, using technology can instantly provide data, graphs etc which allow students to get thinking immediately. Some items of data and graphs might take too long to form using just pen and paper and so valuable time is lost when students are doing routine tasks. They are not taking advantage of the technology that is available to them both now and in their future careers.

I remember a few years ago I was observed with a Year 12 class introducing the number e. I was disappointed when the students took about 20 minutes to draw the graph with pencil and paper and even longer to draw tangents and calculate the gradient at different points. I would now of course let the students use Geogebra or similar to conduct this investigation so that they can spend much more time theorising, analysing and ultimately thinking mathematically.

The second main reason I believe that technology is important is that it develops students’ understanding. There are other reasons to use technology too, but I’d like to discuss briefly this understanding aspect for now, specifically when technology doesn’t work to promote this.

If I listed every form of technology I have used as a maths teacher it would be a long list; calculators, Excel, Geogebra, Desmos, MyMaths, Powerpoint, Optivote, Kahoot…

I find myself more and more doubting of the merits of some of the technologies above, and of teachers who claim to use technology well in their lessons. My main gripe is the claim that students are learning mathematics through technology when they are actually simply answering standard, procedural maths questions but happen to do so on a digital device. In the worst cases, at no point does the technology promote understanding or develop thinking. For instance, I used to sit my students down in front of computers and get them doing MyMaths questions thinking I am doing my bit for embedding technology in maths teaching and learning. I was wrong! I’ve used MyMaths here as an example but I could equally use lots of other website or resources. In fact, I do think that MyMaths have some good applets and demonstrations in their lesson files which allow the user to change variables or see how things fit together. This is basically the beginnings of dynamic geometry software – in which you could of course use the Geogebra applets or Geogebra/Desmos graphing software. 

Some may say that by getting the students to use a computer to answer questions engages them in the way pen and paper doesn’t. To this I would say that using technology to deepen and develop thinking does that too! And shouldn’t our priority be getting students to think about mathematics rather than simply having them entertained?

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