Technology, maths and professional teacher development

I had lunch with Dr Jeremy Roschelle, a Director at the Center for Technology in Learning, SRI International, Palo Alto, CA. For over 60 years SRI International, an independent, nonprofit research institute, has produced world-class research and been a major player in the growth of Silicon Valley and the computer revolution. (The mouse was invented at SRI International.) The main points of our discussion is below.

Previously I blogged about a presentation that Jeremy gave on the effectiveness of technology in the classroom, when scaled up. In the study that Jeremy led, SimCalc — an interactive software-based curriculum that teaches graphing technologies and concepts of proportionality to 7th grade learners — was implemented in 48 classes in Texas. The learners in those classes showed a significant improvement in performance compared to 47 control classes. Today Jeremy again reiterated the importance of a holistic approach to implementing technology enhanced learning, which includes having good software that is aligned with the curriculum, and comprehensive educator training on that software.

Jeremy also spoke about the importance of having educators that are adaptive and strategic in their teaching approaches. Being flexible means that an educator can present a concept in a way that is different to that given in the text book, but that might build on examples given by the learners in a class. To develop these skills of adaptation and flexibility, educators can be trained in practices of argumentation. This sort of professional teacher development should be coupled with training in software used in the classroom, e.g. like for SimCalc. Of course, domain knowledge — knowing maths very well — is still crucial. It’s no good having a wonderfully flexible educator who can’t remember key formulas.

School testing is currently very good at separating out those with subject aptitudes from those without. For example, a maths test is an easy way to discern the top 5 and bottom 5 learners in a class. Typically the top learners receive further boosting and go on to become very strong in maths, while those at the bottom tend to stay there. The current education testing system will need revising if the goal is to improve grades overall, not not just for top learners. In the SimCalc study, Jeremy created specific metrics to measure the impact of that particular software.

The dual role of maths means that on the one hand it comprises numbers and formulas and on the other hand it requires analysis and logic for number manipulation. This duality is collapsed by the current way of teaching maths. There is a need to separate this out again, but not too far. Jeremy says that you can’t ignore the numbers and formulas aspect of maths by trying to make it a subject that is applicable to everyday life in every way, because much of mathematics proper is simply very domain specific.

As a parting shot he spoke about two projects that he is involved in: Group Scribbles and G1:1.

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