When I visit schools I'm excited by how many use interactive software to support maths learning. But sometimes I am concerned when I see how the technology is used. I find myself asking if it enhances the learning of maths or simply replaces practices that might be more appropriately carried out by teachers?
Here's a good example from a lesson exploring pupils' understanding of time. They were discussing times they knew - when they got up, when they left for school, etc. They recorded these times on analogue and digital clocks, discussing how to record them. Moving into the IT suite, the pupils logged on to a program and completed multiple choice questions matching a written time to a clock. The room fell silent as children took turns to answer questions using two strategies: try each answer in turn until you get affirmation from the machine, or ask your friend. All discussion stopped. I asked how they were applying their prior knowledge. That wasn't the point! You just need as many correct answers as quickly as possible.
The motivation was not learning maths but finishing the exercise.
So how can we measure the effectiveness of software? Does the software provide an image of the mathematical idea you wish to teach? Does it model the maths that you are asking the children to engage with? An example of this would be the number line. This models the "big idea" of place value and supports children in developing mental strategies for carrying out calculations.
The MathsWorks software I worked on has developed this idea to create a "zoom number line". Zooming in and out of a number line offers a view of the number system that is only available using ICT. It meets the criteria of representing the number system and modelling the maths of place value.
It also allows us to begin discussions about rational and irrational numbers, or even the fact that no matter how far we zoom in, there will always be another "zoom" to be made. We can talk about infinity with primary mathematicians.
Another question is: does the resource encourage learners to describe what they are doing? An example of this is a teacher asking children "how have you worked that out?" as a part of teaching. A resource cannot force learners to describe what they are thinking, only good teaching can do this. However, programs can help learners think "out loud". It is always exciting to see learners motivated by their developing understandings of maths. ICT has a vital role in supporting learning and showing children maths is something they can do.
My aim here is to suggest that we have a role to ensure software genuinely enhances learning.
Dr Tony Cotton is principal lecturer and programme leader for primary undergraduate teacher education at Nottingham Trent University. He is the series editor of Longman MathsWorks - a new set of resources for Years 1-6.
Tel: 0800 587 8032 www.mathsworks.co.uk