Stephanie Burroughs, Ed.D.

Curriculum Leader, K-12 Education

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Why we should be using technology as a vehicle for Literacy in Mathematics.

Guiding Principle 3 for Massachusetts Mathematics Programs:

Technology is an essential tool that should be used strategically in mathematics education.


Guiding Principle 3 for Massachusetts Mathematics Programs has me a bit disappointed. Embedded in the description is a conversation on the importance of graphing calculators and there is recognition that technology can be used to support communication in Mathematics. What this 3rd Guiding Principle is lacking is a discussion on the opportunities for literacy in Mathematics that technology allows. 

I am slightly obsessed with the idea of Literacy in Mathematics, but for good reasons, and would like to see the focus of all of the guiding principles to be on methods for encouraging literacy in our content. In guiding principle 3, I would like to see less emphasis on technology as a tool in Mathematics and more of a focus on the opportunities to collaborate, communicate, and analyze information through technology. I would like to see more connections to the three focus areas outlined by the frameworks: Conceptual Understanding, Procedural Fluency, and Real World Application. I believe that technology can serve as a means to support student growth in these areas and is not simply a tool, but also a vehicle for literacy in Mathematics. I can divide the use of technology in the Mathematics Classroom into two distinct categories: Technology as an Essential Tool for Understanding and Technology as a vehicle for Literacy in Mathematics.

Leveraging Technology as an Essential Tool for Understanding

When we are talking about technology as a tool, we are looking at integrating spreadsheets, graphing calculators, and software to assist with sense making. In this capacity we are exposing our students to technology for the purpose of developing a deeper understanding of procedures. Technology has then provided us with an opportunity to represent Mathematics in a different way, a way that pencil and paper will not allow. Examples of this include sites like Desmos where students can manipulate functions to gain a better understanding of their algebraic form. Students using applets and software like Geogebra to work their way through the proof of theorems are also leveraging technology as a tool to develop their conceptual knowledge. Also important are opportunities to manipulate and analyze data through spreadsheets and statistical software. Our students must be able to leverage their resources for the purpose of sense making. In this capacity technology is enhancing what students can do with pen and paper and it is not revolutionizing the way we think about Mathematics. 

Leveraging Technology as a Vehicle for Literacy in Mathematics

Students using technology as a vehicle for Literacy in Mathematics are communicating and collaborating to develop their conceptual understanding in addition to their knowledge of mathematical applications. Yes, software and graphing calculators allow us to interpret data and understand the intricacies of a function, but we cannot solely focus on these aspects if we are to develop mathematical thinkers and problem solvers. We must harness the assessment methods and instructional strategies of other content areas and use technology to support writing, the sharing of ideas, and the discussion and debate over solution strategies in Mathematics.

There is an assessment hurdle that we need to get over in Mathematics in order to support a  deeper understanding of mathematical ideas. This involves understanding that a Mathematics program cannot devote its time to rehearsing problems and practicing processes if we are to prepare our students for the real world. Our student's future will not involve repetitive manual tasks or routines; instead our students will be asked to create, work with new data, and think on their feet. I use the graphic below often to illustrate the changing work tasks in the US Economy and highlight the need for changing how we look at teaching and learning in Mathematics programs. For me, the items in green, yellow, and orange below represent the way we used to teach and assess Mathematics; these are clearly declining as necessary skills in the workforce. The items in blue and red are clearly where Mathematics teaching and learning should be moving toward. 

More details on the research behind this graphic can be found in the paper Dancing with Robots: Human Skills for a Computerized Workforce by Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane 


In knowing this information, we should all be asking: How do we prepare our students for their future?

I have an oversimplified answer to this question, but some times the simple answer is the best answer. We must adjust and encourage literacy in Mathematics, not just routine problem solving. I believe this is reachable if we are able to focus our instructional practices and assessments methods on the three key focus areas for Mathematics programs: Conceptual Understanding, Procedural Fluency, and Real World Application.

Throughout our discussions with students on these three focus areas we should be looking for opportunities to harness technology to encourage discourse. Technology might not be the only avenue through which we can address these, but it is the topic of this blog post. Under this umbrella our students should be arguing their solution strategy, interpreting real world data, and presenting their understanding through a variety of platforms to audiences that include their peers, their community, and the world. This makes blogging, publishing, and participating in discussion boards critical to understanding Mathematics, and I happen to agree. 

Mathematics is the universal language and we must read, write, and communicate in a language to become literate in that language. In this capacity, we are using technology as a means to achieve literacy in Mathematics and preparing our students for their future. Problem solved.


For more details on how to encourage Writing in Mathematics within these focus areas, please view my most recent presentation on the topic: Creating Meaningful Writing Assessments in Mathematics.

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