Technology: tool or trap?
I was disappointed by Conrad Wolfram’s talk because he mainly seemed to focus on reducing time-consuming hand calculations by replacing this with computer automated calculations. This is how computers are used in many professions but not necessarily the most important use of technology in teaching. Understanding a concept will surely involve learning HOW to do something by hand first? Practice is important to consolidate factual knowledge but it does not have to be just repeating exactly the same formula over and over again. I have seen good teachers use interesting practice questions involving different ways in which a concept can be applied. Using a computer programme to work out things for you does not necessarily help learning. I have recently experimented with Desmos and although this was a very quick tool to see what would happen by changing variables, this did not mean I understood it or could reproduce it. I found sketching it myself first, more helpful to learning and then used Desmos to check and confirm my conclusions. I can see myself using Wolfram or Khan Academy in this way. One of his complaints is that maths teaching is a dumbed down version of real life. But to start teaching a concept, won’t we need to simplify a problem first, then expand and extend it later? He does see the importance of mental arithmetic for estimating. But he seems to forget that to obtain these skills, he probably needed a lot of practice to build up factual knowledge, without a calculator!
He discusses maths modelling and simulation and yes, computers have speeded up the computation part of this immensely, especially repetitive computations. I think it would be extremely useful to teach students about how maths and programming are actually used in different professions. Maybe teaching processes, procedures and programming could be combined with Computing or ICT? Many argue that simple programming skills should be taught starting in primary school and I think would be helpful if followed up in secondary school. But some students seem to think a calculator or computer will do all the maths for them and of course we know this is not so. The tools are only useful if the one who is wielding them knows what he can do with them.
Willingham approaches technology from a different angle: suggesting that today’s students are so immersed in technology that teaching might have to be adapted to their experiences. But research seems to show that students still think and engage in the same way. Some things do stay the same. I agree with him that technology can be a powerful tool in teaching but only in the hands of a teacher who uses it effectively. And that multitasking should be discouraged which I always try to tell my kids! Very interesting how music can be distracting to some but focussing for another. And again the view that not one size fits all: some groups will be able to process information presented in a variety of such as pictures, text and videos. But others will learn better if we keep it simple and take into account the differences in how working memory works. Again we see a benifit of factual knowledge in freeing up working memory. This will be something to keep in mind as we step into teaching: using technology as a tool but always planning our lessons around the group of students involved and help them learn. And using other tools as well.
Wolfram presented some reasons for why maths is a core subject and must be taught to everyone. He lists: technical jobs, everyday living and logical mind-training. If these are our main goals, couldn’t we tailor the curriculum to different levels of ability with different maths courses instead of one? I would say that everyone needs the maths required for everyday living but the maths needed for technical jobs, engineering, science, accounting, could be offered separately and not be compulsory. Again I refer to the Netherlands where there were 2 maths courses when I was at school and currently there are 4, with some overlap. Taking a maths course is compulsory but students choose which course to take based on their other subjects and ambitions.