Ring out the old, ring in the new

Ring out the old, ring in the new

Ring out the false, ring in the true. 

(from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ring Out, Wild Bells!) 

The Education Age last Monday published an article titled The classroom’s great white hope on the use of interactive whiteboards (IWBs) in some secondary schools in Melbourne. IWBs were described as being the leading edge of a revolution in education; tools that utterly engaged students; effectively catered to all learning styles; and had the ability to reach students with learning difficulties and special needs”. 

I believe that it is the curriculum and its delivery via a teacher that should be the facet of education that engages students, caters to all learning styles and has the wherewithal to reach students with learning difficulties and/or special needs. IWBs (and, in fact, any technology) are tools by which the learning of the curriculum can be delivered, but it is the teacher and his/her pedagogical beliefs about how the learning should be shaped that will ultimately determine whether or not learning will occur, how authentic that learning will be and the quality of the learning that happens in their classes.

No technological tool will, on its own, achieve a revolution in education without a concurrent change in teachers’ thinking about how learning is shaped. I fear that focusing too much on the ‘newness’ of the visual impact of classes using IWBs takes the thinking away from where it should be – on pedagogy.  

In a mathematics-specific context, the graphing calculator has become established in mathematics classrooms throughout the world and, now in Victoria, we have the CAS (Computer Algebra System) calculators. Claims have been made in the US that learning of mathematics has been improved through the use of graphing calculators in classes. We have to note that the standardised tests that were used in the US to measure this improvement in learning were the same tests that had been used without calculators and the same teaching/learning approaches had been employed in the classrooms. Interestingly, at a conference I attended last year on Teaching For Understanding, one of the sessions I attended on the use of the graphing calculator to improve students’ understanding in mathematics had its presenter advocating the use of a TI83 and programming it to find the angle between two vectors. Unfortunately (from my view, anyway), the students didn’t come up with the method for doing this…all they were required to do was create a program that used the formula the teacher provided them with!!

I think we have to be VERY careful that we think about how the calculators (particularly the new CAS ones) can be used to really improve learning…ie in the form of mathematical understandings – not just students’ scores on tests that have the same form as tests in the past.  Instead of the biggest potential being “making improvement happen faster”, I think our use of the graphing calculators could have the potential to make connections between concepts more accessible and visible and allow mathematical educators to have new and different ways of approaching topics. We shouldn’t allow the calculators just to be a more powerful tool to “do stuff” in the same ways that we may have done it in the past. 

I would like to see technology not used to just do things faster … it has the potential to really improve students’ understandings…we just have to think carefully about how to do this in our teaching.

The ‘new’ will only ring in ‘true’ changes to student learning when technological tools are used in ways that don’t just reflect ‘old’ paradigms in teaching and learning.



About Linda

I have been involved in secondary mathematics education in Victoria, Australia for over 25 years.
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