Tech and Maths Education
We initially asked Alison how her career in maths started.
Dr Alison Clark Wilson Principal Research Associate at UCL’s Institute of Education, London talks to The Maths scholars Scheme
‘Originally I studied chemical engineering but fell into teaching as there was a real shortage of STEM teachers at the time. I had a young family and it was practical decision to consider teaching as it does fit in very well with family life. However, it was a close decision between teaching maths and physics and, to be quite honest it was a case of turn right to train to teach Physics in Brighton or turn left to train to teach Maths at WSIHE in Bognor Regis. Dare I say it? Bognor was more convenient for my children’s school so that’s basically where the journey started.
Having fallen into teaching maths almost by accident I found myself in the classroom during the late 80s early 90s. It was such an exciting time when I look back. There were new technologies emerging and a ‘post-Cockcroft’ approach to maths teaching that encouraged student-led investigational approaches. I was immediately hooked as I rediscovered my own mathematics and I was inspired by the work of people such as: Warwick Evans, Adrian Oldknow, Afzal Ahmed, John Mason and others. You couldn’t help but be infected by their enthusiasm for a maths curriculum that was open and accessible to all.
The opportunities that technology afforded were amazing. Suddenly I could see there were many ways of getting kids switched on to maths in both practical and tangible ways as difficult ideas related to algebra and geometry became easier to grasp. In a way I could see maths teaching could be much more akin to science teaching, with its empirical approach. My own attitude to maths came alive when I saw its diverse applications and it was obvious to me that we could offer pupils much more that just a ‘pure maths’ curriculum.
I would say that I grew up with technology. I’d had a Sinclair ZX81 home computer as a teenager and I had dabbled at uni and obviously done some programming but, when the BBC computers arrived with graphics cards that could produce images (rather than only lines of text), I was hooked. I realise now that I have learned so much new mathematics through using dynamic geometry, graphing software and beyond.
As an NQT I was part of a national pilot for ‘handheld technologies’ (graphics calculators to us now!). This gave me the chance to look at the use of technology more objectively rather than just being an enthusiastic advocate. I really wanted to know how we really engage with maths when we experience it through dynamic technologies. I then went on to study for my Master’s degree in mathematics education and, as I became involved in larger research projects and I found I was pursuing the same lines of enquiry really, but on a much bigger scale involving many more classrooms and teachers.
We then asked Alison about how long she’d been pouring over the role of tech in the Maths classroom
So I have been thinking about how technology helps us to understand maths for over 20 years and I still remain both excited and intrigued. What I do want to know, however, is why the vast majority of maths teachers don’t also get so excited!
I understand the constraints very well such as school accountability and the current exam set-up that makes time very precious and places tremendous pressure on maths teachers, in particular. So staying abreast of new technological tools for maths can be ‘just another thing to do’ when, already teachers are very busy. In my research, I have been trying to understand how to design professional development that can be offered to support teachers to unlock this ‘ubiquitous tech’. We do need the newer teachers and trainees to carry the torch. But I do also think that experienced maths teachers also benefit from revisiting their own maths through tech, so as to enable their own students to explore further and be motivated to pursue what we know if a challenging subject to teach and learn!
What can technology achieve in the Maths classroom?
If teachers are going to try any new approaches in their teaching, they do have to be prepared to take some risks. All learning starts at an individual level and, without some expert support, it can be difficult to work through the possibilities for the software alone. Everyone needs someone to guide and make suggestions based on other previous successes. As we all know, maths software is not divorced from the maths itself, (the ‘engine’ inside the software is driven by mathematics) you can’t separate these two facets. Also, throughout any use of a maths technology the learners will be engaging with mathematical ideas, so of course a rich context is also very helpful - everyone needs a problem to work on. It is not very motivating to go and ‘learn a new software’ for its own sake - it’s about experiencing a relevant mathematical exploration within the software - in my experience, things work best when the mathematical problem solving and the technology-use are experienced simultaneously with real purpose.
So, contrary to popular belief that technology use simplifies many aspects of our lives, in mathematics education, it can actually complicate things for a while. Everyone needs to get his or her hands dirty by working through maths tasks for themselves and seeing how, within a software package, certain mathematical concepts can be experienced as real ‘wow’ moments. For example, you can go from a simple paper folding activity such as forming ellipses from circles of paper to modeling this in a dynamic geometry application and this whole topic in geometry becomes exciting rather than pedestrian.
Of course, I have a passion for technology – but not ‘any old technology’. It means different things to different people and it includes such a vast range of resources. On the one hand you might be talking about a school network to manage assessment data, student reports, attendance data or virtual dinner money - Or it can be highly specific maths software such as Cornerstone Maths, ScratchMaths, Autograph, Geogebra and beyond. The sort of technology that many of my colleagues in the Knowledge Lab are researching is that which involves the learning of something important – technology that involves the creation of human knowledge in some form or another. I focus on maths and STEM, but I have colleagues who research how technology impacts on literacy or how it can be designed to support learners to communicate, supporting children with autism, for example.
One thing we have learned is that, although small-scale pilots work well and can be highly successful, ‘rolling it out’ to reach more teachers is more problematic - a big issue is that scaling Ed Tech across many schools and classrooms seems to be so difficult. The factors that explain this are complex. Some Ed Tech initiatives that have scaled have done so at grassroots level via teachers’ words of mouth. Many top down attempts have failed as they inevitably have too short time lines and rarely provide sufficient professional development support for new classroom practices to become fully embedded.
We know that our Maths Scholars are highly qualified and motivated and can often think that big changes to the prevailing classroom practices in maths can be achieved quickly. If we are not careful we reject things that don’t appear to be immediately successful – so we have to persevere and show grit and resilience even if our early attempts to use technology in the classroom are not as successful as we might have envisaged. We can’t simply shy away from things that appear disruptive to our idealised classrooms, as they might be what we need most. When technology is introduced, teachers’ and students’ roles do change (I’ve edited a book on this!) and it is helpful to have some insights from research to be prepared for this!
In my work, I aim to support teachers to make decisions about their use of technology in more discerning ways, which helps us to build our knowledge of teachers’ classroom practices with technology what we do in different contexts. This takes time. I have spent years designing software and classroom tasks to help learners to understand difficult concepts like why we use letters to represent numbers - basic ‘gatekeeping knowledge’ – and how technology might open these fundamental ideas for learners. However, to support teachers to feel truly confident to adopt such approaches in a sustained way takes about two years – to trial and reflect, and try again etc. We know from many previous projects that teachers can’t simply do a week’s course on ‘technology’ for their classroom practices to be transformed.
Think about it, if the teaching concepts and ideas are good and software is exciting you’re in a new world. Inevitably, students will behave differently. Therefore teaching methods will change as a matter of course; we have to be prepared for that. The light bulb moments open access to mathematical ideas that students might not otherwise have access too.
One thing I would say is that contemporary teachers need to have a flexible outlook. Technology is all around us, and plays a huge role in students’ everyday lives. But even though this is the case, in most classrooms, the text-book (or a projected version of it) can still be the sole source of knowledge. Technology use by students is not common in maths classrooms and, in fact, recent national industry surveys suggest that maths teachers are less likely to use maths technology or subject based tech than teachers of say, geography, science or English.
In the UK, maths doesn’t yet have widely used robust schemes that have dynamic technology embedded within them for student use. By contrast, in Japan there is a government- backed geometry scheme that includes a paper-based book, an e-book for laptops/tablets and a teacher version of the scheme with dynamic geometry embedded. This has taken 7-8 years to develop and it includes dynamic images to enable the teacher to open up mathematical ideas that are far more difficult to envisage in the paper-based book – it is truly incredible.
Unlike many other countries, in the UK students are not required to use any maths technology in exams beyond a scientific calculator. These timed exams therefore still dictate the teaching style and curriculum and there is little incentive for the system to change. However, some schools do reject this approach and results are showing that more time is being given to explore ideas using technology, especially in KS3 where there is more time to invest to explore deep mathematical concepts.
We desperately need a critical desire for change to explore other forms of assessment that might involve student’ active work expressed through a maths technology – we were actually nearer to this 10 years ago!
Ultimately, we need an education system that pays attention to the world our students are going to inherit and, to achieve this we need to critique the current system and improve and develop it for broadly societal reasons. My hope is that our Maths Scholars should be informed enough to critique and participate in these debates. My critical awareness was aroused when I embarked on my Master’s degree in mathematics education and I suggest that all Maths Scholars should aspire to do this within 5 years of completing their teacher training route – en route to Chartered Maths Teacher status, of course!
We need our scholars to be active participants in national policy debates.
I believe we can achieve systemic change if we have a strong enough professional voice with sufficient weight.
Alison Clark Wilson works as a Principal Research Associate at the UCL Knowledge Lab, UCL Institute of Education and is currently a Co Principal Investigator (with Celia Hoyles) for the Nuffield Foundation Cornerstone Maths project, which extends the earlier project funded by Li Ka Shing Foundation. (www.cornerstonemaths.co.uk).
She is also a Founding Trustee of ‘Maths on Toast’, a charity that aims to make maths family fun, offering creative maths activities for families at home, at school and in family friendly places (www.mathsontoast.org.uk).
She has worked at the University of Chichester where she designed and led master's level postgraduate courses and projects for practising secondary mathematics teachers, often with an emphasis on the development of innovative pedagogies involving the use of mathematical technologies.
Alison directed the UK evaluation of Texas Instruments’ TI-Nspire handheld technology and the European evaluation of their TI-Nspire TI-Navigator network classroom system. From 2009-2012 I had the role of the project lead partner in the EU Comenius funded project ‘EdUmatics’, which involved 20 Partners from seven EU countries (www.edumatics.eu).
She has also edited and authored 3 books, the most recent of which is The Mathematics Teacher in the Digital Age (with Ornella Robutti and Nathalie Sinclair, published 2014).
She is an active member of The Mathematical Association, Association of Teachers of Mathematics and a Fellow of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications and currently serves as a co-opted member of the Executive Committee for the British Society for the Learning of Mathematics. Alison co-convenes (with Dr Alf Coles) the Mathematics Education Special Interest Group for the British Educational Research Association.