When all the technology in the world won't help

When all the technology in the world won't help

Summary: A masters thesis fell into my lap earlier this year when I switched second semester classes and taught another section of informal geometry. I decided to look at the section I taught in the first semester with an inclusion teacher versus the section I was teaching second semester.


A masters thesis fell into my lap earlier this year when I switched second semester classes and taught another section of informal geometry. I decided to look at the section I taught in the first semester with an inclusion teacher versus the section I was teaching second semester. I didn't have inclusion support, but I decided to use technology (Geometer's Sketchpad and Excel) to supplement classroom instruction. My goal was to see which class performed better on tests and the final with a followup on their standardized test scores next year.

Seems reasonable enough. However, while the first class wasn't exactly a group of high achievers (informal geometry is a conceptual approach that we take for students who really struggle with math; we avoid proof entirely, skip the trigonometry identities, and gloss over analytic geometry), most were willing to put in the effort, especially with one on one help.

The second semester class, however, was a different breed of cat. A third of the students needed weekly reports for their probation officers, a third genuinely need inclusion support, and a third just need to stay conscious. For these kids, technology just got in the way of forcing the math into their brains. I could have spent a week just getting them all to use Sketchpad correctly, let alone getting them to use it for visualization. A simple exercise to verify the Pythagorean theorem turned into a drawn out afternoon of forcing kids to follow basic directions. For those who made it through the directions, the geometric proof was completely lost, despite being completely visual.

This is in complete contrast to a pre-calculus class that I usually get to sit in on (the teacher uses my room during my prep, so I often get to observe his lectures). The teacher is a master of integrating graphing calculators to illustrate concepts without allowing students to rely on them as a crutch. The calculators simply become one more tool, like a whiteboard, a handout, or a group activity, and the kids switch naturally under his instruction between graphical, analytic, and mathematical methods of problem solving.

My point is that I'm not giving up on technology in the classroom. Obviously, I'm no Luddite. However, my thesis is getting rewritten to look at non-technological approaches for students who really struggle with geometry (and their behavior). There is a point where the tech gets in the way and just can't be turned around to help the kids. Talk back below and let us know where your best and worst classroom tech experiences have occurred.

Topics: CXO, Collaboration, Microsoft, Software

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Small Town Budgets

    The facts are most small town school systems will continue
    to teach non-technically. I'm a product of one small public
    high school two-hours from DC that couldn't afford a
    Calculus teacher. Solution? They gave us a telephone and
    a TV (1986) and told us to switch the local PBS station.
    Yes, we learned via Virtual Communication! Problem was,
    the telephone didn't work most of the time. Needless to
    say most of the class "moved on" with only two students
    who returned after Ma Bell "fixed" the problem weeks later.

    Now, having said that - my most favorable teaching
    experience was Fall 2006, at a very old University inside of
    DC, where I studied Grad-based CL/NLP with predicate
    calculus/FOL as primary mathematics. I physically
    attended, listened, took hand-written notes with a class of
    ~15 students.

    So, from this, it's hard to judge for every student in this
    situation, but from view a smaller classroom with a person
    standing in front, with only a whiteboard, and source code
    print-outs, was more effective/favorable to allow me to
    explore the possibilities in my own mind.

    As for my geometry in high school? A serious joke, the
    teacher was a chain-smoker, black bags under her eyes,
    meaner than a bulldog, and was going through a divorce
    the entire time. Funny how those angles work (or not) for
    the subject... Won't elaborate more than that. :)

    Good article!
    • With the OLPC, small districts WILL be able to give each student a computer

      Well, OLPC just started the revolution, districts might also be buying the latest from Dell, HP, Asus, Everex, etc.

      There will be a turning point when the computers get cheap enough to pay for themselves, by eliminating text books. The advantages of having kids grow up with computers are many. We need to do that right here in the good old US of A to be competitive in the future.
      • I don't buy the textbook elimination argument.

        I can't believe how badly kids treat textbooks, so I am still not sure how they'd treat electronic books, laptops, etc. And I really can't believe the textbook folks will sell me 5 or 6 years of electronic textbook for the same $45 they sell me a book for; nor do I believe the machine will stand up for 5-6 years regardless. So I am going to be spending several hundred dollars for hardware that won't last as long as a book, plus spending whatever for the content, plus providing tech support for the hardware, plus training on all of it. And what happens when Johnny says, "My book battery is dead"? What type of machine will it be? A Sony Reader costs about $250 retail, many users say they need to charge it daily, and that has a MUCH better battery life than any laptop. Real laptops eat batteries, and after a year they will need new replacement batteries, which cost another $100 or so. Where is the savings here?
        When I see a real bid from a real provider, I'll be amazed if it isn't a LOT more than the cost of the books that system replaces. I know the one unit could replace several books, over several years, but seriously, I don't think it will work; the price will be higher than it should because everyone wants a piece of the action; there are just too many things that can go wrong, and the TCO for the whole thing is probably going to cost us MORE money than books.
  • Time to bring out the good ol' rulers, protractors, and compasses.

    Time to break out the rulers, protractors, compasses, and graph paper. That's what most of my early Geometry classes used. Sometimes hands on really is the best approach.

    Computers and calculator are often used after the concepts are taught, not before. It's tempting to use something simply because it's "high technology," but the truth is that just because it's high technology doesn't mean it's the right tool for the job.

    Not all problems can be solved by throwing computing power at them. Unfortunately, that's something we tend to forget sometimes.
    • Sure, kids that did not grow up with computers are a lot more comfortable

      with rulers, protractors, compasses, and graph paper. That much is true. And, for those kids, it might be best to show them the basics with something they are comfortable with. But, then again, using a geometry class to introduce kids to computers is not the best idea in the world either.

      If you have kids that grow up with computers, it will be just as hands on to draw with computers as with graph paper. And, with computers you can do a lot more, generate a lot more high level constructions that is possible with graph paper.

      By the way, I was the last group of engineering students to use only pencil and paper for "Freshman Engineering Graphics". And many of the later courses I took we had to do things by hand. I did not grow up with computers.
      • On the downside, though

        Too much reliance on a computer can take away from the natural talents of an individual.

        Imagine not developing the natual ability to draw that some of us have as we learned to draw on the computer, where much of the talent was from the software, and not our minds.
      • agreed (nt)

        nt = no text
  • Very good post. This tells us that introducing technology is a process that

    can take many years. You are working with groups of kids that did not grow up using computers, were probably not exposed to computers at home, etc.

    If we had kids that were exposed to computers at home prior to elementary school, then had computers integrated into their 1-6 education, and finally continued with computer all the way through high school, it would be easy for you to make the course a lot better with technology.

    I think the sooner we can integrate computers into education in the US the better. Starting with grades 1-6. As you are noticing, trying to use if for older students that did not grow up with it can a disaster.

    But, thanks for doing your best with some challenging students.
  • A good article, and interesting thought

    it would be interesting to see just how much using a computer to figure out a problem vs using your mind, effects the developement of the brain early on, and how those same areas come into play in other aspects of a person's life.
  • RE: When all the technology in the world won't help

    However, my thesis is getting rewritten to look at non-technological approaches for students who really struggle with geometry (and their behavior).

    I struggled with olane geometry and my teacher probably struggled with my behavior, but some better instruction would have helped. I don't care whether it was a chalkboard, handouts, overhead projections, whatever, it was the teacher's (in)ability to teach math, versus my (in)ability to absorb and understand what she was saying, that made the difference. Not the technology

    Phalbe Henrikson

    P.S. She had only a chalkboard.
    • Plane Geometry

      Not "olane"

  • Okay, I'll bite

    What kind of new-age touchy-feely crap is an "inclusion
    • Simple

      Rather than having the student who have
      identified special needs pulled out of the class for
      separate instruction by the special ed teacher, the
      special ed teacher goes into the classroom and
      "team teaches" working with the students in the
      regular academic class. This keeps everyone in
      sync with the content being taught and allows the
      special ed teacher to provide more support when
      the student comes for additional academic
      support. Nothing "new age touchy feely crap"
      about it. Makes more sense.
  • RE: When all the technology in the world won't help

    Learning goes way beyond technology. Perhaps, the Pythagorean theorem could have been used as the vehicle to learn the technology. Think long term. Kids don't just use protractors, rulers, or micrometers(do they still make them) without learning what they are used for. Build the learning within student projects, http://guide2digitallearning.com/blog_grant_zimmerman/engaging_students_memorable_life_long_learning_units. Pouring math into brains makes leaks.