Commentary

Computers Are the 'Trojan Horse' of Mathematics

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Lenora Sheppard is in her 30th year of teaching high-school algebra and geometry in a poor rural district in southern New Jersey. Far from burned out, Ms. Sheppard recently purchased a personal computer and began teaching her math class with a device that projects the computer image onto a wall screen.

"It's the greatest thing since bubblegum," she confides, describing how she has tutored four "hopeless" students on the computer and saved them from flunking. "That gave me a real sense of accomplishment. And the regular kids who normally don't come in for extra study are here at lunch and after school."

Studies over the past 10 years have confirmed what math teachers have known for decades: American students don't do well in math, and nobody, least of all parents, seems to care. Results from a national math exam, part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, showed that in even the highest-scoring states (North Dakota, Montana, and Iowa), only a tiny minority of 8th graders scored above grade level. As one math educator laments, "We are on various positions on the cellar stairs."

Though such ideas as national testing and school choice are politically attractive, they only point to the magnitude of the problem, and will do nothing of themselves to change how teachers teach or how students learn. For those who recognize its potential, the Trojan horse that can bring math comprehension into our schools is already there: the computer.

As of last December, K-12 schools across the country already owned 3.3 million personal computers and were acquiring new computers at a rate close to half-million a year. Unfortunately, these marvels of technology are relegated to such profane uses as remedial writing, word processing, and sometimes computer programming. Educators and administrators seem vaguely aware that, if computers are useful at home and in the workplace, they must have a place in schools, but few seem able to figure out just where.

Their place is in the classroom--not for special or remedial purposes, but as part of the daily curriculum. Used one to a class, computers allow teachers to junk mechanistic approaches to math rote learning without much understanding--and present concepts visually and instantaneously. (One piece of imaginative software under development shows two cars on a highway and plunges students into every imaginable calculation--and even some calculus-regarding their comparative rates of speed.) Used one to a student, computers allow individuals to proceed at their own pace, give teachers feedback, and allow for more individualized instruction.

While computers can help any student understand math concepts, they can be of particular use in helping underachievers, especially minority underachievers. Much of the available mathematics software communicates with images and sound in ways that appeal to teenagers whose attention spans are shortened by a diet of television and video games. More importantly, minority students who may accord traditional education very low credibility recognize that computers and technology are a driving force in the economy. Plugging in to that technology makes the prospect of real jobs in the real world all the more likely.

To be sure, using computers is no guarantee of a successful math education, and it is not surprising that few schools have attempted to take computers seriously as instructional tools. Yet while managers in industry recognize the importance of using technology to make productivity gains--and that, essentially, is what computers can deliver to classrooms--school administrators seem mired in concern for students' scores on national achievement tests.

The best way to improve student achievement scores is to improve teacher skills and motivation. The example of Lenora Sheppard and others shows that computers can help teachers get excited about their work almost as much as they help students. But mathematics software on the market ranges from excellent to deplorable, and teachers need time and administrative support to decide what programs to use and how to integrate them into existing curricula. Without that support, computers languish in remedial-writing labs and students languish in rote-mathematics hell, their potentials unrealized.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1799 that doing mathematics was "a delicious luxury." Mathematics and computers are no longer a luxury. Ninety percent of the next century's jobs will require literacy in one or both, and the society that fails to recognize this essential fact is on its way to second-class status.

Vol. 11, Issue 08, Page 30

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