The thing about technology…

My mind is in this place because a technological tool that I’m working on today has made my workday somewhat frustrating and largely unproductive (at least in the area that this tool is needed). Here are my thoughts on this issue:

For me, it’s easy to forget that learning happens through tools.

Pencils, books, sheets of paper, raising your hand, desks, chairs, crayons, etc. These are all tools. Tools that have become ubiquitous. They are practically synonymous with the classroom. At one point or another students have to learn how to use these tools, but the mechanisms we have for teaching their use is pretty standard fare.

Modern technology has the ability to change that, but we mustn’t rest behind the often erroneous assumption that young people are just naturally good at using technology. It’s likely true that most 14-year-olds would be more comfortable navigating an iPhone than most 75-year-olds, but let’s not translate that into 14-year-olds naturally being equipped to adapt to a learning management system like Moodle or a application like Desmos. They might not be.

Educational leaders need to remember the same thing about their instructional staffs. If there are tools that we are asking teachers to use, there needs to be time, support, and feedback dedicated to learning the tool in addition to learning the function that the tool serves.

Assessment and data analysis are two separate areas of understanding (despite the fact that they often get talked about together) and the tool(s) through which those get done might add one or more separate areas of understanding.

If we are asking teachers to use a tool (like Data Director or Illuminate Education) to create assessments to gather data for the sake of analyzing it later, we are asking teachers to perform in three distinct areas: gathering data, analyzing data, and using the tech tool.

It’s no different if we are asking the students to complete a learning activity on Desmos that they will explore on an iPad. It’s important for a teacher to be very clear about the number of distinct understandings that will serve as prerequisites to the mathematical knowledge at the end of that lesson.

The game of teaching and learning is changing. I talk to a lot of teachers that are intimidated by technology. It makes sense. There is plenty enough to try to manage and understand as it is. If we could stick to pencils and paper at least the tools will be familiar.

And I work to help make instructional and assessment technology seem more realistic. And I feel like It is important to make memories of the frustration I’m feeling right now to remind me that for some teachers and students, this is actually a pretty normal feeling.

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We’re not just teaching math…

The old adage goes “I don’t teach math. I teach children.” That line typically gets used when an educator’s focus is a bit out of balance with respect to empathetic student-centered attitudes and content-driven, fidelity-to-curriculum attitudes. There needs to be a balance and it can be tricky to find sometimes.

In addition to that, there is another balance that needs to be struck. The balance between the math content in a curriculum and the other skills the students are going to need to learn the math content. Some of these skills are considered “soft skills” by some. These are things like communication skills, presentations, research, teamwork. I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with the term “soft skills”. (We can talk more about that another time if you want).

Beyond those, there are some “hard” skills that some math teachers just feel isn’t their job to teach. These are things like technology skills, reading, writing, and supplementary (often much lower-level) math skills. I’ve been in a variety of math classrooms talking to teachers of high school math who feel like they just shouldn’t have to teach fractions, long division, and reading.

Yet, increasingly math classes are starting to look like this.

2014-02-20 10.41.53

We’re not just teaching math…

And those skills, be them “soft” or “hard” will directly impact our students’ ability to learn the math content that we are hoping they’ll learn. I think it is important that we math teachers simply expect to have to teach our students to do everything we need them to do to be successful in our math classes.

And this includes remembering that teaching and learning have some recurring patterns when done successfully: teacher modeling, student exploration, student individual practice, formative assessment, feedback. These are things that exist in every successful math class I’ve seen. (Depending on teacher philosophy, the order of the steps might not be the same in every classroom, but the steps are all still there.)

Very few teachers will tell you that you can skip that teaching-and-learning process for the math content.

Many more will skip that teaching-and-learning process with the “softer” parts of their curriculum.

Perhaps, I should back up and discuss how I see “curriculum”. From the teacher perspective, curriculum includes both the “what” of the learning, but also the “how”. And if a math teacher has students whose math experience looks like this…

2013-10-24 13.04.22

… as is increasingly becoming the case, then the curriculum probably includes three fairly broad categories.

Math Content: This would include the primary learning targets for the course, but also the prerequisite math knowledge that the students need to advance successfully to the new content.

Learning Tools: Depending on the class this might include a couple of devices (calculators, iOS devices, laptops, Chromebooks) and any other manipulatives (Alge-blocks, patty paper, compasses, protractors, etc.). If the learning will require the use of these tools, then the learning of these tools is every bit as much a learning objective as the math content.

Classroom Procedures: Where will the schedule be posted? Where will handouts be made available? How does a student turn in assignments? Where should a student look when he/she has been absent? What does a student do when they are trying to work at home and find themselves paralyzed by confusion?

If a student struggles to learn well the content in any of those three areas, that student will start riding the struggle bus pretty quickly. The first step to avoid this is to recognize that we are going to have to actively teach all of the things students need to know to be successful in our class. How many of us run a formative assessment where the learning target of the assessment is “Students will be able to use a compass”? How many of us give feedback on the learning target “students will know how to create table with ordered pairs on Desmos”?

Remember, we don’t teach math. We teach children to learn math. And that requires us math teachers to remember that there’s actually a lot more than math knowledge that students will need to be successful in our classes.

Have you seen Desmos Polygraph?

Most of us are  old enough to remember the game Guess Who, right? It looked like this:

Guess Who

It went like this: You and an opponent each had a board in front of you that looked like this. Then you had a card with a face on it. So did your partner. By asking only questions that could be answered by “yes” or “no”, you needed to eliminate all the faces that were not on your opponent’s card in fewer turns than your opponent.

So you might ask “Does your person have glasses?” or “Is your person wearing a hat?” Based on the answered, you could flip some faces down because you knew they couldn’t be correct.

Okay. Now apply that to math. Imagine instead of human faces, it’s parabolas.

Polygraph Parabolas

They also have one for lines, hexagons, rational functions, quadrilaterals (both basic and advanced).

Still yes or no questions. Students still have to determine which pictures to eliminate based on the answer to the yes or no questions. Set-up is incredibly easy.

As if that wasn’t cool enough, if you can think of a set of pictures you’d like to see, you can create your own Polygraph activity.

I thought it would be cool if there was one for systems of linear functions.

If you haven’t taken the time to explore Desmos yet, I’d say it’s about time.