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Technology in the middle years mathematics classroom: Technology driving pedagogy or pedagogy driving technology? July 10, 2011

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
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from Catherine Attard

Catherine Attard examines the use of ICTs in the teaching of mathematics, and suggests it is important that these technologies are used thoughtfully, and in the continued service of effective mathematics learning for students rather than the converse.

With new technologies continuing to change the ways we communicate, calculate, analyse, shop, and many other aspects of our home and work lives, it is timely to consider how effectively technology is being used in our mathematics classrooms. Arguably, computer technologies are changing the ways in which we think and make sense of our world (Collins & Halverson, 2009). This has been acknoweldged in the Australian Curriculum  (mathematics) with the inclusion of information and communication technology (ICT) as one of the ‘general capabilities’ students require to be successful in work and life in the 21st century. With ICT embedded within the content descriptions and elaborations across all strands of the new curriculum, teachers are now responsible for incorporating a range of ICTs to support and enhance student learning and their engagement with mathematics.

It is a common belief that the incorporation of computer technology into mathematics teaching and learning motivates and engages students (Pierce & Ball, 2009). However, research into their use in mathematics classrooms has revealed some issues that could negatively impact on student engagement as a result of how they integrate with existing pedagogies. There is a danger of the technology driving pedagogy, rather than pedagogy driving the technology. Research by Samuelsson (2007) revealed some teachers who regularly incorporate computers into their lessons tend to use them in a way that resonates with a didactical, teacher-centred approach. Reliance on such an approach restricts the potential of ICTs to act as an agent of change in terms of supporting students’ engagement with the subject.

As mentioned in my first blog post, “If you like the teacher, you’ll ‘get’ maths more”: Students talk about good mathematics teachers, my recent research into engagement with mathematics during the middle years found students appeared to experience mixed feelings towards the use of ICTs that were directly related to the way the technologies were incorporated into mathematics lessons. For example, when computers were used purely as replacement for text books, providing little opportunity for teacher/student interaction, students began to disengage from mathematics and found the emphasis on computers to be a distraction, with this student’s comment a typical response:

…there’s also a lot of distractions ‘cause I can see people around, like the boys around me, they’re not actually doing their work, they’ve got games and the calculators on the dashboards and like the internet, and it’s like using the Macs… I find it a lot more distracting ‘cause there’s Bluetooth and I’m very tempted, and the Internet’s just…there’s like a lot of gimmicks where you can just get rid of the screen straight away and go back to your work,  like command-H hides that page.

On the other hand, when the same group of students experienced the use of technology through a student-centred approach, their engagement levels appeared to increase:

Maths has been a lot better. It’s not as boring as doing the same thing over and over again on (the commercial website). We’ve been doing more interactive with the drawing and the measuring with the ruler and Sketchup and all these other programs.

Teachers who have successfully implemented computer technology have been found to display a wide variety of teaching styles that include a willingness to become a learner alongside students, and a willingness to lessen teacher control in the classroom (Thomas, Tyrrell, & Bullock, 1996).

When good pedagogy drives the incorporation of technology into mathematics teaching and learning, ICTs have immense potential to enhance students’ experiences with mathematics. However, it must be acknowledged that the incorporation of ICTs is not without difficulties and challenges for many teachers. Factors that inhibit teachers’ use of computers include issues of access, lack of technical support, and the time it takes for students to learn to use the equipment and software programs, taking away from time learning mathematics (Forgasz, 2006; Hoyles, et al., 2010).

For teachers to make the transition from a traditional mathematics teaching approach to one in which computers play an integral role,  a commitment to learning how and when to use the technology is required (Goos & Bennison, 2008; Pierce & Ball, 2009). Aspects of good practice that have been identified from research are:

  • Teacher confidence and expertise with technology;
  • Emphasis on mathematical ideas and concepts rather than on teaching the processes of using the technology;
  • The ability to teach mathematics with technology so that its use is seamless, and the use of computers in such a way that students are able to reflect on results rather than simply produce answers;
  • Presentation of the big picture of mathematics, the use of multiple representations of concepts and development of skills necessary to understand concepts better; and
  • The ability to engage students in technology teaching and learning activities and the ability to respond to and support students’ needs accordingly (Thomas et al., 2007).

The use of computer technology in the mathematics classroom has the potential to enhance students’ learning and have a positive impact on their engagement when used appropriately. It is not enough to embed ICT into our curriculum documents. Teachers need to be supported with access to professional development and strong technical support, peer support and system support. Only then can we expect to see more instances of pedagogy driving technology rather than technology driving pedagogy.

References: Collins, A., & Halverson, R. (2009). Rethinking education in the age of technology: The digital revolution and schooling in America. New York: Teachers College Press.  Forgasz, H. (2006). Factors that encourage or inhibit computer use for secondary mathematics teaching. Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching, 25(1), 77-93.  Goos, M., & Bennison, A. (2008). Surveying the technology landscape: Teachers’ use of technology in secondary mathematics classrooms. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 20(3), 102-130.   Hoyles, C., Lagrange, J.-B., Drijvers, P., Kieran, C., Mariotti, M.-A., Ainley, J., Meagher, M. (2010). Integrating technology into mathematics education: Theoretical perspectives Mathematics education and technology-rethinking the terrain (Vol. 13, pp. 89-132): Springer US.  Pierce, R., & Ball, L. (2009). Perceptions that may affect teachers’ intention to use technology in secondary mathematics classes. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 71(3), 299-317.  Thomas, M., Bosley, J., delos Santos, A., Gray, R., Hong, Y. Y., & Loh, J. (2007). Technology use and the teaching of mathematics in the secondary classroom. Wellington, NZ: Teaching and Learning Research Initiative.  Thomas, M., Tyrrell, J., & Bullock, J. (1996). Using computers in the mathematics classroom: The role of the teacher. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 8(1), 38-57.

Catherine Attard is a Lecturer in mathematics education in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She has published several other posts on maths education – you can search her name using the search engine at the top of this page.


1. auntylee - July 12, 2011

this article highlighted one major problem with using the internet in class -the students who use the internet to play games,visit unconnected sites and chat to their mates. From long experiience ,I find that it is more efficient to show students sites and let them use the sites in their own time.

2. Catherine Attard - July 13, 2011

Thanks for your comment, auntylee. I agree, there are many issues surrounding the use of Internet in schools. However, we shouldn’t limit our use of technology to just the internet and/or computers. There are other, more mobile technologies that can also be used to support teaching and learning of mathematics. Devices such as iPods, iPads, GPS and even the humble pedometer have the potential to engage students and enhance their learning. The use of ICTs that students are using in their day-to-day lives outside school can help make mathematics more relevant and, more importantly, highlight the links between school mathematics and ‘real-world’ mathematics.

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