Wednesday, March 9, 2011

More on engaging with math

My blog has been used by Bryan Plumb on his site here:

In recognition of World Maths Day today, bee-it’s own Bryan Plumb investigates the role technology plays in teaching maths and the importance of relating mathematical principles to the real world...
Maths was never my favourite lesson as a pupil. I’d always make sure that I understood the basics of whichever aspect of the subject was being taught so that I could sit at the back of the class copying other people’s work but still get by if a teacher asked me to explain how I had come to an answer. I just couldn’t see why I would ever need to work out what the loci of an opening door would be, let alone how quadratic equations would play a part in my future life. The lessons seemed dated; at least at primary school we were using robotic ‘turtles’ to plot paths, at secondary school the closest we came to technology was using the ‘sin’, ‘cos’ and ‘tan’ buttons on our calculators. In a nutshell, unless as a pupil you just clicked with maths, lessons were rather dull and uninspiring. With this in mind and World Maths Day featuring this week, I wanted to find out if using technology in the classroom can raise levels of enthusiasm and attainment for maths.
Jane Fisher is the Year 2 Lead and Maths Coordinator at Hovingham Primary School in Leeds. She has played a key part in introducing technology to the maths department of the school, having used a multitude of technologies to help raise levels of engagement. She explains:
“Since introducing technology to maths, we have seen a huge improvement in the pupils’ confidence levels. With many subjects, whilst there may be a better answer, there is often no right or wrong answer, this means pupils feel more confident about raising their hand and getting involved with the discussion. However, in maths this is often not the case. Pupils can feel very wary of answering questions due to the fear of being wrong, and this is where we have found technology can help.”
Fisher continues:
“We have been using Mathletics for 18 months now and have seen a real difference in our pupils. Because the system is full of positive reinforcement and focuses on ‘eight correct answers’ rather than ‘two incorrect answers’, it gives the pupils the confidence needed to succeed in maths.”
An example of Mathletics in action
Laura Holt, Year 5 and 6 teacher at Brigstock Lathams C of E Primary School in Northamptonshire, has also used Mathletics in the classroom. She said:
“Mathletics manages to make maths fun and this is absolutely vital for many pupils, especially those with little motivation. As the system is designed to look and feel like a game, pupils don’t really feel like they are doing work, however they are learning key mathematical principles that they will need to know for later life.
Maths techniques only sink in through repetition, but taking home sheets upon sheets of questions can be uninspiring. Using technology really helps to keep the pupils motivated though and can give a purpose for practising.”
World Maths Day, the world’s biggest global online maths event, uses the Mathletics system to encourage pupils from all over the globe to compete against each other by answering quick fire maths questions. Tim Power, Chief Executive of 3P Learning, the company behind Mathletics and the hosts of World Maths Day, said:
In 2010, 1,133,246students from 235 countries correctly answered 479,732,613 questions during the event. We’re encouraging students and schools to sign up and help us beat last year’s record, and have some fun along the way!”
To get involved in World Maths Day 2011 which is taking place today, click here to register for free.
Across the pond, David Martin, a maths teacher at Notre Dame High School in Red Deer, Canada has been using other web based systems such as Facebook to encourage learning. He said:
Every weekend I give my students a problem that they must solve. Students must either send me a message on Facebook, email, or write the answer out on paper (for those students who have no access to the Internet over the weekend). The student must actually write out how they solved the problem and communicate their answer to me through text.”
Martin shares an example of a student's answer for a problem on how to factor a cubic equation:
‘First, I found the factors of three and substituted each until I found three to be the number that once substituted equals zero. Using synthetic division, I got x^2-x-1. There are no two numbers that multiply and add to get -1 so I used the quadratic equation. After simplifying, I found x to equal one plus or minus the square root of 5, divided by 2 and x to equal 3.’
Martin continues:
“As you can observe, the student can no longer just write out their answers using maths, but instead communicate the solution to me. By sending it to me over Facebook or email, I have the ability to give them immediate feedback on their solution. The sad truth is that students are craving information immediately and at light speed. If educators do not recognize this need, students will tire of our classes and not reach their full engagement.”
An example of the Facebook page used by David Martin at Notre Dame High School
For the record, bee-it is not promoting the use of Facebook in schools, however Martin is using technology that is freely available to encourage learning and participation in students aged 16 to 18. A similar way of achieving the same outcome could be to create a group or department within a school VLE, for example. Fisher explained the differences a simple piece of software can make when teaching a class. She said:
“We have found a lot of children struggle with place value in maths, often finding it difficult to visualise the relationship between ‘tens’ and ‘units’. We regularly use Numicon  pieces to help teach this, as sometimes technology is not the best solution and for kinaesthetic learners, Numicon requires physical contact. However, when presenting to an entire class of thirty pupils, a piece of software on the interactive whiteboard can work wonders and often caters for visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners, covering a variety of learning styles in one go.”
For teachers who are interested in free place value software, Woodlands Junior School website is a great place to start. The website features a host of free online tools which can be used in the classroom when teaching maths.
One of the problems with technology is that it moves on too quickly to keep up with. Whilst on Christmas Day a computer game is brand new and exciting, by New Year’s Day (or Boxing Day in some cases!), young people want something else. Therefore it is of key importance that whilst technology is used to help to teach, maths is still explained in real world terms so that pupils can understand why they are learning particular disciplines.
David Martin explains:
“I am trying to integrate technology in all my disciplines of maths, as technology can also illustrate how maths is related to the real world. My fear is that some teachers forget that it is very difficult for students to grasp a concept when it is taught to them in a meaningless context.”
Laura Holt agrees and has used some interesting scenarios to help raise understanding of maths. She said:
“I always think time is the most important mathematical discipline you can ever learn. Without a real understanding of time, you may arrive to work late, miss your bus or not catch your favourite TV programme. This year, I have been linking time, weight and money to eBay to help provide a real world example of maths in practice. We set up a post challenge which encouraged pupils to work out how much it would cost to send a variety of parcels to different parts of the UK by estimating and then working out the weight of parcels, and then cross referencing this with the cost per Kg.
Suddenly, pupils were no longer just playing with weights and scales, but there was real motivation behind doing so.”
Jane Fisher is a big advocate of ‘real world maths’, so much so that she has dedicated a section of her website to discussing how maths can be related to everyday activities. She said:
“We have taken pupils out to the local supermarket to purchase ingredients for breakfast. We have had to assess value for money between different sized products, how much milk would be needed to cater for the class, and how much change we will have left.
During parents evening, pupils stand at the back of the classroom selling biscuits. Previous to this, we spent time deciding the cost of the biscuits to ensure we make our money back, and practice numbers so the pupils provide a good service.”
When considering the benefits of using a variety of technologies to teach maths, Martin adds:
Schools are forcing students to leave their digital media tools outside of the classroom however the students are craving these tools to be used inside the class. We need to change our paradigm from looking at standardised test scores and graduation rates, and start focusing on allowing students to perform on what they are passionate about.”
Fisher agrees that using technology which pupils are already aware of and may have in their pockets can be a fantastic way of raising enthusiasm for the subject. She said:
“As well as interactive whiteboards and computers, I have used a Nintendo DS to help teach maths. The game ‘Maths Play’ has been trialled in some schools and reports suggest that, as well as being highly engaging, it does improve children’s mental recall of maths facts. I also regularly bring my iPad into lessons which has proved a wonderful tool on many occasions.
Some pupils require a lot of attention from the teacher, but with a class of thirty pupils this is not always possible. However, technology such as the iPad allows a pupil to explore the world of maths at their own pace through a variety of applications. They can hear, see and touch the system and generally find it a really rewarding way to learn – I wouldn’t be without it!”
Games based learning company, i-education, also believe there are huge benefits to utilising a variety of technologies when it comes to learning. Within the last few weeks, they have released an iPhone app of their highly acclaimed I am Learning revision tool.
The newly-launched I am Learning iPhone app
Managing Director Michael Wilkinson says:
“It is our company philosophy to harness social practice, and so mobile phones play a massive part in that. We felt that as pupils carry mobiles around with them at all times, we should utilise this power and create a GCSE maths revision app. The system enables pupils to revise wherever they are providing the have their phone with them, thus making learning a natural extension of everything else they do with their device.”
You can purchase the I am Learning app from the app store directly from your iPhone, or by clicking here.
When I began researching this article I didn’t really know where to turn. As I mentioned, at school I didn’t get on with maths and the thought of writing about the topic had sent shivers down my spine. However, speaking to a variety of education professionals who are teaching maths in such innovative ways has made me excited about where maths teaching is going. There are plenty of quality commercial and free products out there which can be integrated into your classroom instantly, and there is a huge support group full of people who are willing to answer any questions you may have, it’s called Twitter.
Fisher commented:
“For any teacher who is looking into using technology in maths, or just wants to connect with other education professionals, Twitter is the place to go. It is free to use and full of fantastic people who are really keen to help each other out. I have often found myself asking a question to my fellow tweeters rather than Google as I know the answers are coming from people who have the same questions and dilemmas.”

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