About that NCTM tech panel…

I’ll be writing a fuller, NCTM recap (hopefully) sometime this week but I wanted to get some thoughts out there for my own sanity (yes, I write to process). There was a panel during NCTM entitled Teachers Leveraging Technology in the Classroom. Here was the description:

“How can technology, from apps to blogs, help teachers create effective & innovative instruction? How can teachers use technology for their own professional development? This panel features the perspectives of five educational leaders: Karim Ani, Ashli Black, Chris Hunter, Dan Meyer & Kate Nowak who have incorporated technologies into their work.”

This was a weird one. Let’s start by noting that the title and description are disconnected: one refers to “technology in the classroom”, the description refers to “technology for … professional development.” Also, none of the panelists were teachers (correction: Chris Hunter is still in the classroom).  Still, the panel is filled with six of the most thoughtful educators I know (in addition to the five listed above, Raymond Johnson was on the panel). I wouldn’t consider any of these panelists technology cheerleaders. Quite the contrary. I feel like anyone that thinks these folks are going to be cheerleading classroom technology use doesn’t follow these folks very closely. Somehow the conversation turned quickly to NCTM and NTCM membership, which was tangentially related to virtual collaboration (which actually IS in the wheelhouse of these folks). But back to technology:

The panel all agreed that technology can often be solution without a problem. The audience participants wanted technology recommendations. Again: these are not the people to ask, because they’ll ask you right back (remember: the teacher thing): WHY? Show your work, district tech directors. Justify your reasoning.

At the risk of self-plagiarizing, I’ll refer to my own session in which I plagiarized Simon Sinek’s mantra “Start with the Why.” What is the goal of tech in the classroom? In fact, that doesn’t even feel like the right place to start: what is the goal of the math classroom?

Karim offered a nice test to whether a piece of technology is useful or not: if it increases the communication between students and teachers, it’s a good piece of technology. I’d add one more marker: if it increases communication between the student and self, i.e. technology that allows for reflection and individual sense-making. I’ll also toss “creating stuff” under that umbrella, but I understand if you’d make that its own category. These are my “why”s. Instructional software generally doesn’t achieve any of these communicative why’s, nor do I believe they even transfer that much content knowledge.

I feel bad for the participants that showed up to get more ideas for “whats”. I understand that grants run out and the funds are use-‘em-or-lose-‘em, so it’s incumbent on admins, tech directors, and teachers to spend money on tech quickly in a way that’s palatable to the grantors. So here’s some tech that I used, use, or have seen used relatively effectively (and sometimes ineffectively!) generally in 1:1 classrooms to achieve one or several of these three communicative goals. Note that some of these communication paths overlap – particularly the student-to-teacher and student-to-student routes.

WHY: To increase communication between student and teacher

  • The computer’s built-in webcam. I saw a teacher have students create “video shorts” and they’re fantastic. Students have about 60 seconds to describe their solution to a problem into their webcam, which the teacher can then assess for understanding quickly. It has the nice side benefit of getting kids comfortable with using mathematical vocabulary without the stigma of fumbling in front of the class. Students can rerecord if they like.vs
  • Geogebra and Desmos. Free, intuitive, sharable. You don’t need a step-by-step do-as-I-do walkthrough to use them. You can just get in and play around. Also, the Geogebra and Desmos user-communities are vibrant and responsive.

WHY: To increase communication between student and student

  • Google apps. We’ve all used google docs, forms, spreadsheets, etc. at this point. You can use it to collect need-to-knows about a topic or problem, reflect and journal,
  • Some sort of flowcharting software. There are some free ones in Google Apps.


  • Modular furniture. Look, I’m not saying Steelcase is cheap, but their furniture is great for enhancing collaboration. With all this money you’re saving on free tech tools, maybe you can use some of the extra dough on workspaces. Hey, you asked (you didn’t ask).
  • That whiteboarding paint stuff. Also not terribly cheap, this stuff is still great. You can use it to scribble all over the wall. It does need to be wiped down and reapplied pretty regularly though. It’s also probably not easy to write this stuff into a cool tech grant, but still.

WHY: To increase communication between student and self

  • Word processing. Yup, good old Microsoft Word, perhaps with an equation editor (free or paid) tossed in for good measure. Students should spend time doing disciplinary writing and get comfortable writing mathematically. You can do this with pencil and paper, but saving your work, revising and improving your work, and embedding images, graphs, and data tables is difficult or impossible to do with paper.
  • tdg
    Student work sample courtesy of Mr. Eberly.
  • “Free creating-stuff software suite”. Inkscape. Gimp. Google Sketch-up. I use Inkscape for pretty much every diagram I make, even over existing images. Google Sketch-up is good for geometry and dimension. right triangle
  • Jo Boaler’s “How to Learn Math” (student edition, coming soon) and maybe some other MOOCs. I can’t say I know much about the student edition of this course, being released soon, but the teacher-facing one was illuminating and I only assume the student-facing one will be too. You could possibly have a “math lunch group” or after school thing based around this course.
  • Data research websites. Sites such as Tuvalabs, Gapminder, NASA, and probably lots of others should be open for students doing data-driven projects.

The tech that enables all this to happen

  • Wifi. Clean, stable wifi. I don’t want to wade into the “block or unblock certain websites” debate here; I just want a stable internet connection that allows students to email, upload and collaborate on their work. You can’t do that without an internet connection, preferably one that doesn’t tether students to fixed locations in the classroom. You’ll also need a space for students to upload their work. You can do that with email, but something like google sites or some sort of LMS might be easier to manage.
  • A device that contains all this stuff standard. My preference would be chromebooks or laptops, if only because I find it cumbersome to type, create, and share fluently without a keyboard and mouse. Also iPads keep their software allowances under pretty harsh lock and key. Inkscape, for instance, can’t be installed on chromebooks, iPads or Macs.
  • A place to store all this tech when it’s not appropriate for the day or week’s topic. Get it outta the way. Moreover, consider teaching and practicing norms for retrieving and replacing the tech.

If I were to summarize, this tech is the same tech I use for my work. You’ll also notice that much of the software is free.

For the record, I generally hate the “50 TOP TECH TOOLS FOR EDUCATION” blog posts. In part, it’s because they don’t start with (or even consider) the “why.” Relatedly, it’s also because they’re basically just click-bait and don’t think through the actual classroom issues they are intended to address.

Tech may be the “what.” It may not be the “what.” Make sure you identify your “why.” As in, “why math?”

I have many more disparate thoughts on this panel (like, I wonder what it would have looked like had there been a tech-warrior on the panel?) and NCTM at large, but I thought I’d throw in my two cents, even though, I too, am no longer in the classroom full time.

9 thoughts on “[NCTMNOLA Processing: Session 1] Classroom technology (and everything else): Start with the why

  1. Dan Meyer isn’t a teacher? Because he’s not currently teaching? Two years ago, I wasn’t teaching. Last year I taught four hours a week. This year 5. Am I a teacher again? Dan’s work is well-grounded in his relatively long practice before he started his doctoral program. In fact, these days, doctoral programs in math education look for people with teaching experience in K-12 and it’s hard to get a professorship without it.

    1. Perhaps I should have been clearer: none of the panelists were currently teaching in the classroom. Although even that’s an error: Chris is still in the classroom.

      You don’t think a panel entitled Teachers Leveraging Technology in the Classroom should include more than one teacher in the classroom?

      1. Depends. They could be researchers who spend a lot of time in other people’s classrooms looking at the issue in question. I would hope that most researchers in math ed these days have K-12 teaching experience, and increasingly that is a prerequisite.

        If you feel you were misled. . .

        But then, I wasn’t there. I’d have gone regardless given some of the folks presenting and likely felt very well-served by the time investment. But unless the panel was speaking in strictly theoretical terms (in which case, I’d be pretty surprised), seems like people in a position to present useful information on the topic.

  2. I entirely agree with your sentiment Geoff and think it is important observation. I too would have paused upon noticing the disconnect between title and sessions. As you showed in your post, whether or not they are teachers or were teachers, you were still able to learn and reflect on your practice — Thank you for sharing what you learned. I always find a great deal to learn from you.

  3. Love the video shorts. I think there’s a side benefit of those in that almost every, if not every, kid will watch what they created at least once…some good student to self in that too!

    1. Absolutely. I think i hits on oral communication and agency pretty darned well. That was a tip I found in Belton from Missy. She’s the best.

  4. I wasn’t at the presentation, but I agree with your manifesto. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in the classroom choosing technology for the sake of technology, instead of focusing on the learning goals and allowing the right tech to help me meet that need.

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