FROM THE YELLIN CENTER NEWSLETTER - FALL 2013 - THE TECHNOLOGY EDITION
New Techniques for Old-Fashioned Learning
Apps are a good way to introduce students to math concepts.
By Beth Guadagni, M.A.
Technology in education is a polarizing topic. Some educators embrace it wholeheartedly, and students come to us from schools in which every child is issued an iPad or a laptop. Other institutions eschew new gadgets and gizmos, and students from those schools spend time practicing their handwriting skills and gleaning research from books instead of typing and using the Internet. Most schools try to strike a balance between new and old, but it seems that even these compromisers constantly worry about whether they've got the proportions right. At home, parents receive mixed messages from the media, where experts on both sides of the technology debate expound on their views, which frequently contradict each other. The trouble is that no one knows for sure how effective most technology is as a learning tool. Longitudinal studies of learning outcomes for a piece of technology that is only a few years old are, necessarily, impossible.
This lack of certainty doesn't stop people from experimenting, however. We were interested to read a New York Times article from early September that reported on the use of math apps in the classroom. Children, and even adults, in the United States fall woefully far behind our foreign counterparts, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and math (known as STEM), and some educators believe technology is the key to bridging that gap. The article discussed a series of math apps aimed at helping preschool students learn critical math concepts so that they'll be more prepared to start kindergarten and elementary school. The National Association for the Education of Young Children is quoted as supportive of technology, with an important caveat: technology is best used within the context of sound instruction.
We couldn't agree more. We love many math apps, and devote lots of time to testing many of the newest electronic offerings for kids. Combining what we know about good instruction and what we’ve observed in math apps and online games, we’ve determined that apps have two outstanding uses: they’re a good way to introduce students to concepts, and they’re great for drills.
Apps as an Introduction
Apps have the capacity to introduce children to concepts in a way that is both inviting and motivating. One of the apps discussed in the article, called Breakfast Time, allows children to "slice" a waffle with a swipe of a finger, then experiment with the resulting pieces. This is a great way to gain a foundational understanding of fractions, but on its own, it's not enough.
The missing ingredient is known in pedagogical circles as "transfer." Many students have difficulty applying what they learn in one task to another task that appears different, even though the connection may seem obvious to adults. Let's use grammar as an example. Many students spend hours identifying nouns and verbs on worksheets. They learn that a complete sentence needs to have a subject, which is a noun, and a predicate, which is a verb or verb phrase. But it takes a fairly large leap to apply that skill to one's own writing without explicit instruction. A student who aces worksheets on parts of speech will often produce sentence fragments and run-on sentences in her writing because she doesn't connect the photocopied, fill-in-the-blank sheets with her own creative story generation. Knowledgeable instructors know that the worksheets are only part of the story; to truly impact a child's written output, they need to teach students to transfer what they learn about parts of speech from a worksheet to their own writing.
So back to Breakfast Time: Slicing waffles via app is a wonderful way to introduce children to fractions. It’s certainly neater than allowing children to practice the same concepts with real waffles. But, as the article explains, the exercise is complete only when the children's teacher shows them how to practice the same principle using real ice cubes and cups, this, we imagine, demonstrates down the road how the same principles can be expressed using numbers.
Apps as a Tool for Drilling
A second great use for apps is to provide kids with rote practice. Going through the same piles of flashcards over and over again is boring, but apps allow children to drill the same facts in a fun way. As many parents have discovered, some of these games can be downright addictive, making kids more likely to want to put in the time it takes to memorize some of these critical nuts-and-bolts skills.
To be alluring to kids, many of these academic games are replete with engaging bells and whistles. If a child taps the right answer, there is often a burst of color or sound, or perhaps a character will deliver a funny (well, funny to your six-year-old) tagline. But these features can sometimes lead the games to be counterproductive, so be discerning about which apps your child uses.
Kids often show us their favorite apps, and we've seen a few that seem pretty ineffective. For example, one student was so eager for the stimuli that resulted in a right answer that he tapped frantically at all the answer choices until he happened to hit the right one, then beamed as he listened to the music that rewarded him for making the right "selection." There was no penalty for a wrong answer, and no limit to the number of times he could be wrong. When asked about what he’d just learned, he could not recall the problem or the answer. He just knew that he'd “gotten it right”!
Another child found the encouraging phrases that emanated from the game when he picked the wrong choice to be hysterically funny. Instead of using the game to work on his estimation skills, he selected clearly wrong answers on purpose and giggled when the game’s characters innocently urged him to try again.
One way to skirt this problem is to introduce an element of competition. Yes, the concern that children in some schools are pushed to be overly cut-throat over grades and accomplishments is a valid one. But most kids love playing games with their peers, and as long as the tone is friendly and the children have similar skill levels, competition is an effective motivator that educators have been using to spice up drills for decades. Kids may not find getting an arbitrary high score on a game to be motivating; it’s more fun to jab at answer choices until one gets a rewarding stimulus. But trying to race a friend is another matter entirely, and many children will respond to this fun challenge by being more thoughtful and strategic about their game play. Two-player games are harder to find, but they’re often worth the search, particularly if children have lots of opportunities to play with a friend from class, a sibling near the same age, or a parent willing to make a few mistakes to level the playing field.
(Tip: It’s no fun to play with a pro if you’re just learning. If an adult is to be the opponent, use an unbiased outside determinate to dictate whether the adult should answer correctly or incorrectly. This will prevent cries of “No fair!” from souring the experience. If the child is learning a new skill and makes numerous errors, flip a coin before each one of the adult’s turns and decide in advance how to interpret the outcome. Heads, for example, could mean that the adult may provide a correct answer and tails could indicate that the adult must answer incorrectly. For a child with stronger skills, roll a die and designate only one side as the signal for the adult to err. Another way to manage mismatched players is to ask the student to catch errors that the adult makes deliberately, though many apps and electronic games will not allow students to earn extra points or gain extra turns for their vigilance.)
Some good two-player games:
Everyday Mathematics: Multiplication Baseball
One player “bats” by answering a multiplication problem correctly. Players with slightly weaker skills are not at a disadvantage, though, because there’s an element of chance to the game: the higher the product, the farther around the bases the runner goes. After three wrong answers, the first player strikes out and must hand the device over to his/her opponent for their turn at bat.
Decimal Squares Interactive Games
These creative online games are a great way to practice tricky decimals. Most are designed for two players. One of its free offerings, Rope Tug, is reminiscent of blackjack: each player is dealt a card with a decimal on it and must decide whether the card is likely to be larger than their opponent’s. The larger card is not necessarily an outright winner, though, because the player must type in the difference between the two numbers to win the round. His/her avatar will gain a slight advantage in the tug-of-war on the screen, and then the next round begins.
No waiting around for your turn in this inventive game! Instead of passing a device back and forth, each player commands one side of an iPad and both answer math problems simultaneously, racing to provide the highest number of correct answers. Problems include basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, prompting students to be attentive to the signs. But things get trickier when, without warning, “storms” of problems with parentheses appear, requiring an understanding of order of operations.
No face-to-face opponent available? Head over to Arcademic Skill Builders to play opponents from around the world. Students can play up to three opponents in each game. Correct answers to math problems (or other academic questions like reading and spelling) will cause them to earn more points or gain a burst of speed as they race against their peers.
Most parents and educators realize that technology is not a panacea. But it can provide kids with fantastic tools, and we hope this information provides a few ideas about using flashy new techniques to help develop solid, old-fashioned understanding.
Photo credit (above): Brad Flickinger (modified)
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