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Math is not a performance subject

By Brandolyn Patterson
December 12, 2017
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Research tells us that for our math brain to grow, teachers and students need to develop intuition for math and make visual connections. Yet many math teachers learned traditional math and got teaching credentials years ago, when the only technology available was a scientific calculator, and the emphasis was on math as a performance subject, not a learning subject.

My district recently rolled out a 1:1 iPad program and provided all students and teachers with basic skills training. Now it’s time to turn our attention to the ISTE Standards for Educators and focus on being collaborators and facilitators when it comes to technology use. For many this will require a shift in thinking so that we can design our learning environments (ISTE Educator Standard #5) around an open set of ideas that we can play with and explore.

This is especially important in mathematics classes where traditional pencil and paper still rule (no pun intended).

Several years ago, our department began using an online math program, and embedded within the ebook were references to Desmos, a free online graphing calculator. This got our department thinking that perhaps this tool would offer a way for students to meaningfully use technology, visualize math and make content connections to big ideas, as encouraged by the ISTE Standards for Students.

This year, our math department was awarded an NCTM In-Service Training Grant to help us learn more about using the online graphing calculator to help students visualize their work and revise their mathematical thinking. Through our training, we learned that the online graphing calculator has a set of activities, specifically designed to engage students in the process of mathematical inquiry.

The activities are a step up from the traditional graphing calculator as each inquiry-based activity requires students to create a series of objects that encourage mathematical conversation and promote computational thinking (ISTE Student Standard #5). Because the activities are open-ended, students have the opportunity to be right, and wrong, in interesting ways, further promoting the mathematical practice of justifying responses and critiquing the reasoning of others. Use of the open-ended, digital platform provides multiple entry points, helps students build on prior knowledge and empowers student learning (ISTE Student Standard #1).  

In addition, teaching mathematics with an integrated technology component makes thinking visible and emphasizes critical thinking and problem solving. Research tells us that our brain’s ability to visualize mathematics directly impacts how deeply we are able to learn mathematics. We also know that in order to become a mathematically competent, global citizen, it is imperative that students actively engage with technology and learn how to use technology tools to analyze data and solve problems, as opposed to simply memorizing the algorithm.

What is challenging for some has been the required pedagogical shift – moving away from teaching the algorithm and toward inquiry-based instruction. Some teachers and many parents do not see the value in the shift, as they themselves were taught the algorithm. However, teaching math in the 21st century requires that students let computer programs (such as Wolfram Alpha) and apps (such as Photomath) do most of the number crunching; while human brains focus on the critical thinking (ISTE Student Standard #5). Hence, implementation of ISTE Standards for Students requires re-education of teachers and parents alike. A good place to start, Next School’s video on the 6 Problems with Our School System.

Brandolyn Patterson teaches mathematics at Mill Valley Middle School in Mill Valley, California, and is a teacher leader serving on her district’s Technology Advisory Committee.

Share the ISTE Standards with your students and download the free 'I am a digital age learner' classroom poster.