Monday, May 07, 2007

The Problem in a Nutshell

One paragraph at the end of the Times piece on 1-to-1 laptop initiatives seems to sum up the situation pretty well:

Alice McCormick, who heads the math department, said most math teachers preferred graphing calculators, which students can use on the Regents exams, to laptops, which often do not have mathematical symbols or allow students to show their work for credit. “Let’s face it, math is for the most part still a paper-and-pencil activity when you’re learning it,” she said.

Not to jump down Ms. McCormick's neck -- I'm sure those quotes are pulled out of a long conversation and made more sense in context, but let's run down the observations packed in here:

  1. Most math teachers prefer a $100(-ish) graphing calculator to a $1000 computer.
  2. There is a strong disincentive to using laptops in math class because they aren't allowed on the Regents exams.
  3. Their computers aren't set up in either hardware (keyboard) or software to do very basic things their students need to do in this core subject.
  4. Contrary to point 1, math is not even about using graphing calculators, it is about paper and pencils.

On one hand, this passage illustrates how comprehensively FUBAR ed-tech often is in 2007. Still, it gives me some hope. We don't have to start by changing point 4, that is, fundamentally reconfiguring the math teacher's conception of mathematics. There is lower-hanging fruit here. If we can give students a laptop that feels as simple and reliable as a graphing calculator, which replaces a graphing calculator and has uses in every subject at, say, four times the cost of a graphing calculator, that's a device that might get some traction, particularly if problem 2 is solved with a few pen strokes by the right state administrators.


Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher said...

It is not about technology for the sake of technology, however, it is about using technology for what we cannot already do. Moving from a graphing calculator that is perfectly functional to a laptop to act like a graphing calculator is a little like killing a gnat with a sledgehammer -- overkill.

However, if that math teacher uses a blog to have his students scribe, or uses flickr (like Darren K), or adds Meaning and better teaches the subject by using the laptop, that is an entirely different matter.

Any person who thinks that a laptop is a replacement for a calculator is quite missing the point, as it seems that you insinuate.

I think it is about fixing what is broken and about amplifying and improving what works. There are some times that a calculator is what is needed and the time it would take to get out and boot up a laptop would be a waste of valuable class time.

I think many schools are looking for the "magic ticket" to better test scores when it takes a lot of hard work and effort and wise, pedagogically sound methods and a top notch curriculum that isn't changed every week.

Thank you for bringing this to our attention!

Sylvia said...

Hi Tom,
But when ARE we going to get around to changing the way we teach math?

That is the whole problem... technology adoption (and the lack of it in math classes) is just a symptom.

Tom Hoffman said...

I think it is perfectly reasonable to expect that a computer given to a student to use in school should be capable of handling all their school-related computing needs. This seems like a reasonable requirement.

There is no reason that we can't have laptops for students that are physically convenient to use, hold a charge all day, wake from sleeping instantly, have calculator functions printed on the keyboard.

Practical, cost-saving uses of computers don't have to crowd out more ambitious ones, and they will make it a lot more likely that the hardware will stick around long enough to develop more sophisticated use.

Bill Kerr said...

No one seems to be talking about programming here

the graphics calculator is basically a maths application, it does what the person who designed it intended - it's compatible with the existing maths curriculum (just a few changes) and the existing textbooks (ditto)- works with a lower skill level of teacher

a computer can run programming languages like logo or squeak / etoys which can be used to do whatever the child user conceives (opens up a whole new world) - requires teachers with a higher skill level

graphics calculator wins; maths education loses