Some teachers believe that if they use a more engaging tool then students will become more engaged, and hence more learning will occur. This statement is one that needs to be addressed. I was talking to a teacher, where her school is using Ipod touches, mini whiteboards, Senteo, and other "engaging" tools, and I was intrigued since my district is doing the same. She promised to give me an update as to how the tools were working. After three or four lessons, she explained that the students were becoming more and more off-task during the lesson.
I wanted to dig deeper into this problem. First off, I don't believe a student is ever "off-task", they are just on-task to something that is more meaningful to them at the time. I questioned about the tasks students were given with these tools. She was teaching "solving single-variable equations" and on the fourth lesson, she had posted "4x + 5 = 13" on the board and asked students to solve on their mini-whiteboards, and when finished flash the boards where she can quickly assess the class as to whether or not they are understanding how to solve the problem. I quickly realized the issue. Before implementing a new tool, teachers need to realize that if they teach the same way, just with the new tool, nothing will change. I explained that she was just giving the same meaningless problems without any context to the students, and now just asking them to solve it on a whiteboard. Sadly, over the first three or four lessons the students were learning more about writing on a whiteboard or using the senteo machine, then actually learning the mathematical concept.
How do we fix this? Students should need the tool to solve the problem! For example, if you are giving students a mini whiteboard, it should be because they are going to need to try to attack the problem in many different ways and will need to erase multiple times before achieving the solution. Also, we need to start giving the students problems in a meaningful and contextual way. I asked her to try this question, "Jason drove the store, which cost him $5 in gas. He then bought 4 items, and the total cost of the trip was $13, what are some possible items he could have bought at the store?". This question will need you solve the equation above, but students will have to create the equation, and then use their answer in a meaningful way, as to choose what possible items at a store are $2. Due to the higher level thinking that might occur on this problem, having students collaborate might be a necessity.
We, as educators, need to stop giving students problems that have no meaning, and no context. Many believe that teaching in the same fashion but just using a fancy tool will engage the students more. This should be compared to morphine. If a person was to sustain a major injury, and was asked "Would you like morphine, or for the doctor to repair the injury", most would rather the latter over the former. In education, it seems that most are asking for morphine. This is illustrated by the comment, "I want PD, that I can use on Monday!", and I always rebuttal, "Why not have PD that you can use the entire next semester?".
When we start doing the same pseudo-context questions, just on a fancy senteo machine, it is the equivalent of giving morphine to the injured patient. It will work for a day or two and then students lose interest, because they are more engaged in the senteo, then in the actual problem. We need to be ready to address, or possibly change, our pedagogy before we start changing our instructional tools.