Phone in the Math!

By Sean Cavanagh — May 26, 2009 1 min read

If you’re one of those people who’s still struggling to master the most basic functions on your cell phone (like send, receive, and check messages), you may not want to continue with this blog post. What it says may depress you.

As you sort through your technological shortcomings, it turns out that two young men in suburban Chicago—a 9-year-old and an 11-year-old, to be precise—have developed an application for an iPhone that allows users to solve math problems on the device. It costs 99 cents to download the application, according to this story describing their application, in the Chicago Tribune. The article says the application allows users to perform
“random addition, subtraction, multiplication or division problems and their solutions.”

By now it’s become routine to send e-mails and photos and video images by phone. Some journalists are quite adept at filing entire stories from their Blackberry devices. (I am in awe of their typing ability.) So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that technology has advanced to the stage where students can use their phones to practice their math skills.

My question, after reading about this application, was how far beyond a basic calculator’s functions this device would take users. A question for teachers and parents out there: What other similar devices or applications have you seen that allow students to perform math functions—and perhaps more importantly, actually challenge them to solve problems? Are these technologies encouraging students to think about and practice math outside of school? And while I’m not looking to uncoil another debate about the role of calculators in the classroom, what implications do these devices have for cultivating students’ foundational math skills, and their ability to solve problems by paper and pencil?

UPDATE: I suppose that this story in the New York Times on text-messaging provides some context for understanding the role that technology plays in students’ everyday lives. In one of those statistics that will make geezers like me mutter, “Can that really be right?” it says that American teenagers send and receive an average of 80 texts a day—roughly twice the number they did the previous year. Talk about a captive audience for a math teacher!

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.