The Struggle for New Math Instructional Technology

This article by Jack Smith IV (mic.com) says what I’m thinking better than me. Matt McFarland (Washington Post) has a similar argument most focused on the price (which mysteriously hasn’t followed the trends of any other piece of personal technology by staying quite high).

The argument: Texas Instruments has some kind of a stranglehold on secondary mathematics here in the United States and it certainly isn’t that it is the best tool for the job.

The arguments that I most often hear from teachers in support of sticking with TI are that it is the tools that have been in place so long that they are the easiest for teachers to teach. It’s just easier to have the students all using a single tool that the teachers are really familiar with.

In an article written in The Atlantic, Alexis C. Madrigal argues that there is very little need for an update in the technology if there hasn’t been a corresponding update in the math content requiring the technology. “After all, the material hasn’t changed (much), so if the calculators were good enough for us 10 or 15 years ago, they are still good enough to solve the math problems.”

And also that these tool are the tools that are allowed on the SAT or the ACT. For some teachers that I talk to, this is kind of a big deal. And there is a reasonable logic to it. Those tests are pretty important (especially in Michigan, where school accountability for math is connected to student outcomes on the SAT). So, why confuse a student’s brain with a variety of tools that, when the rubber hits the road, they won’t be able to use?

It’s worth noting, however, that College Board (the designers and publishers of the SAT as well as the Advanced Placement exams) have a particular target audience in mind. In states where the SAT isn’t the state-mandated accountability measure (meaning every single high school junior statewide will take the test), which students are likely to take a test designed by College Board? Students who are college bound and/or enrolled in advanced placement classes. For many, many of these students TI Calculators have “worked out fine”. Also, they’ve likely been the only tool made consistently available. And it’s better than graphing all of your parabolas by hand.

But, have you ever watched a group of students in an algebra class for the second time trying to remember those key sequences and explore images on those tiny, granulated screens? And by now, they know there are technologies out there that are easier to use.

I am certainly not accusing College Board of being deliberately prejudiced. I am not accusing TI of being deliberately prejudiced. I’m simply accusing them of having goals that are different than “100% of math students will learn math at the highest possible level”.

But that’s my goal. And it should be the goal of all of our classroom teachers. And the question should be whether or not TI calculators fit within that goal.

Well, in Michigan, there might be a couple of potential cracks in the shell through which the light of better technologies (like Desmos and Geogebra) could potentially shine through to teachers previously unwilling to explore them.

The Redesigned SAT, which launches in March 2016, has a math portion that includes two sections. There is a significant portion that prohibits calculators completely. Then, there is a section that allows calculators, but the College Board includes questions “for which calculators would be a deterrent to efficiency.” D’ya catch that? That’s our window. This allows for an entirely different message than simply “TI’s are allowed on the SAT, so we’ll use them.”

You could reasonably guess that AT LEAST half of that test should be able to be done with no calculator at all. This could potentially leave a huge hole in one of the most stubborn supports for the TI-status-quo. Now, we are potentially keeping these clunky, expensive devices as the primary tool because of possibly 25 questions that they’ll use it on for a single testing sequence. That’s a much tougher sell.

The other main issue (teacher familiarity) is is a matter of exposure. The teacher prep courses could support this for our preservice teachers. (In 2004, when I was a preservice teacher at WMU, I had one “instructional technology in math” course that has a TI-89 or Voyage200 as a required purchase. Luckily my girlfriend (now my wife) had one.)

Instructional technology in math should be way, way more than a semester-long how-to on a single TI device. Desmos and Geogebra and other available technologies that are free for use in the classroom provide valuable opportunities to give students different experiences with problem-solving in mathematics. But teachers, like all people, are going to stick with what they are familiar with.

And most of these young math teachers (most born in the early 90’s), we raised in the classroom as math learners with TI calculators. Given no other experiences, they aren’t going to have just their familiarity to build from. Especially when, for most of them, the TIs “worked out fine.”

As for the teachers already in the classroom, that’s part of the work of math-minded instructional techs… like me. I’ve got two sessions coming up that are focused on Desmos as a tool to engage math learners.

The SAT did it’s part and I intend to do mine. Our students deserve better than TI or nothing.

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One thought on “The Struggle for New Math Instructional Technology

  1. I can’t agree more that there are now better technologies than an a TI calculator, even though TI has made recent advances with their color displays and clearer resolutions.

    But until the ACT (which is the main college-entry test taken by students in South Dakota) allows a tablet / smart device / etc that runs Desmos, I feel the need to have students comfortable with the TI graphing calculators.

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