When technology first arrived in schools in the 1980s it started off in maths departments with spreadsheets and Logo. It was seen as a natural marriage. Later on, as there were more developments in ICT to support different areas of the curriculum, maths fell behind. For a long time it was word processing and multimedia which dominated the curriculum but with interactive whiteboards it has become easier to show examples and make maths dynamic.
Adrian Oldknow (emeritus professor at the University of Chichester) believes that technology lets learners approach mathematics in ways that are just not possible with the traditional tools of compasses, pens and paper. ‘Start with very basic activities. Do the same activities using technology and you very quickly appreciate that you get further into the mathematics and can unlock children’s inquisitiveness for maths in a way that you just can’t do with a traditional textbook approach. Teachers put in false ceilings, not deliberately, but because it is as far as teachers think learners can reach in mathematics. With technology, ceilings get blown away because children themselves start to ask the interesting questions and want to find out. In my view it really puts maths in the power of the learners, rather than it being the domain of the teachers.’
Jon Skinner is a great enthusiast of using technology in maths and recently introduced handheld graphic calculators as a teaching tool in his classroom. ‘The technology allowed the students to feel that they were working independently. More importantly, presenting data in different ways helps students to develop their relational understanding and enhances their overall understanding of mathematical concepts.’ Jon is one of a group of maths teachers who has been inspired by T3, an international organisation that offers free courses and materials. T3 events bring together teachers, trainers, researchers and curriculum developers to exchange ideas about use of ICT in the classroom.
Jon teaches at Hele’s School in Plymouth where a previously used class set of graphing calculators had got left in the cupboard, overtaken by other things going on at the time. ‘Then a physics teacher showed us the new TI-Nspire and I slowly started to use them for my own calculations. We borrowed a class set and used them for two terms. They have changed maths teaching. The pupils are not sitting down in the class while we say, “Let’s do this example, oh you’ve got the concept.’ They can actually experience mathematics. It’s more kinaesthetic, more tactile.’
Continuing professional development
Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is an essential part of developing the use of technology in schools. If we compare the private sector with education, we begin to see why technological developments are not always well embedded in schools and colleges. When a company adopts a new technology, they set aside almost as much money for the professional development of the employees as they spend on the product itself. Headteachers need to develop that mentality, and set aside money for ensuring their staff understand what is available and how to use it.
Andy Kemp, head of mathematics at Taunton School, agrees that CPD is a vital ingredient: ‘I handed out the graphing calculator to staff six months or so before introducing it to the students as I wanted to give them time to familiarise themselves with it: I felt this would remove the pressure to be instantly fluent. We were also given some training by the company who provided the resources. Some staff engaged really well. One example was a teacher in his 60s. Within just six months of using the technology he was a convert. This is a man who taught without technology for most of his career.’
Conventional methods where the teacher takes books away to mark might mean a three-day gap before pupils find out if they were right. With technology, they can have instant feedback, so pupils recognise where they went wrong and why. Sometimes it gives them the chance to complete the task again so they can truly learn from their own mistakes. Some gifted pupils who are reluctant to put their hand up seem to do better with maths and be more productive when the answers are shared with a computer rather than their classmates.
Andy Kemp feels that interactive whiteboards have improved confidence. ‘As soon as their answers are on paper it is permanent, so they want to be sure the answer is absolutely correct, whereas whiteboards take away that permanency.’ Technology introduces the idea of a work in progress, something which can be edited. ‘Learning should be creative and, for that to happen, students need to feel comfortable in their environment, to explore their work and incorporate trial and error. Using a handheld graphing calculator, one of my Y8 mathematics students spotted a relationship in Pascal’s Triangle that I had never even noticed before. The device gave this student the confidence to explore the maths and consequently he made a discovery for himself.’
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Sal McKeown is an educational consultant and freelance writer