The Intersection of Algebra and Technology

By Tracey Pilone
February 14, 2009 | Comments: 2

There's been a lot of talk about the role of technology in education recently. In part, because the economic stimulus plan has various provisions ($650 Million for Enhancing Education through Technology) that deal with it, and in part because it has been a fairly constant issue in education since the technology was created.

So first, define technology. From the perspective of the classroom, technology can mean calculators, iPods, cell phones, Active Boards, computers, the internet, and on and on. Since the advent of machines that can start doing the things that kids are supposed to learn (spelling or addition) there has been a struggle with what to do by hand, and for how long to do it.

As far as Algebra goes, the biggest topic of discussion is the graphing calculator. Those of us that were working on Head First Algebra all learned Algebra before graphing calculators existed, so when we sat down to write the book, there was a discussion about how much to include them. We decided (as a team, editors, authors and all) that the best way to go was to assume that students would and could use a basic calculator to do division and multiplication but NOT solving equations. After all, the point of studying Algebra is to learn how to do that yourself.

Here's the problem. Just knowing that a calculator that exists that can solve an equation presents a giant motivational challenge. "Why do I need to know how to do that, if the calculator can?" Ugh. That is a perfectly reasonable and typical question out of anyone learning Algebra. Especially if they think that Algebra is just about solving for X. Because if that's all it is a calculator can do that.

That only works, though, if Algebra (or insert other higher math endeavor here) is just about getting the "answer." And it's not. The point of Algebra, for everyone, is about achieving enough problem solving knowledge that you can tackle real world problems as you encounter them.

What you really learn in Algebra is how to think logically. Sequential, logical, thinking is easily illustrated with Algebraic manipulation, but it applies to most things, from constructing a supported argument for a paper about Hamlet to working through the explanation for a chemical reaction to deciding to refinance your mortgage.

Discussing what technologies to use in Head First Algebra brought up some other issues. We, the authors, bring our educational history into play as we decide what will work. Since it did not include computers, our brains were fully developed before we were introduced to the internet. The typical student today has had the computer and the internet in their lives as long as they have been in school, which means that we are trying to bridge the divide between the way that we as authors (or teachers) learned and dealing with the fact that students now have an entirely different set of technological tools at their disposal. It can sometimes be difficult to tell where the line is between working with them and pandering.

The last bastion of kids without some technology skills is those that do not have the economic ability to have computers in their homes, so there is a "control" group of sorts out there that can be compared to tech savvy kids to find out which way is better. Surprisingly, a recent Duke study, Scaling the Digital Divide, found that the impact of home computer use is, if anything, negative on school achievement. That means that there may be benefits to learning language and mathematics before introducing technology into the mix.

The motivation problems with having access to technology are not easy to measure, but everyone has seen them. Why learn to spell if I can just use spell check? Why learn how to figure out a mortgage payment if I can just look it up on the web? Why pay attention to all of this boring stuff if there is endless, more interesting material at my fingertips online?

This is tricky territory for teachers, authors and parents. Balancing proper use of technology and educational goals is uncharted territory and we're going to have to work it out as we go. But for now, as long as you're working with Head First Algebra, you'll need to put the calculator down. It may be able to solve for X, but it's never going to help you learn to think!


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2 Comments

Cool. Thanks. You mean there's another reason to learn Algebra because "it's required"? ;-)

I seem to remember the same argument about thinking being used to justify the learning of Latin and Greek :>) Not that I have anything against Algebra (or Latin or Greek, for that matter, which I chose to learn at school), but I'm not sure this is a very convincing argument...

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