Opinion: Technology boosts primary maths

IT ADDS UP: Research shows the use of technology in classrooms can improve maths results at the primary school level.
IT ADDS UP: Research shows the use of technology in classrooms can improve maths results at the primary school level.

Many parents are beginning to demand less technology use in the primary classroom due to the amount of screen time children have at home.

This raises questions about whether technology in the classroom helps or hinders learning, and whether it should be used to teach maths.

We often hear complaints that children have lost the ability to carry out simple computations because of the reliance on calculators in primary schools. This is not the case.

In fact, there has been very little research conducted on the use of calculators in classrooms since the ‘80s and ‘90s because they are not a significant feature of primary school maths lessons.

When calculators are used in primary classrooms, it's usually to help children develop number sense, to investigate number patterns and relationships, or to check the accuracy of mental or written computation.

There is also evidence that children become more flexible in the way they compute through the use of calculators.

It allows them to apply their knowledge of place value and other number related concepts rather than using a traditional algorithm.

The Australian Curriculum promotes a strong focus on the development of numeracy, including the development of estimation and mental computation.

These are skills that children need in order to use calculators and other technologies efficiently.

The curriculum also promotes the thinking and doing of mathematics (referred to as "proficiencies") rather than just the mechanics. That's where more contemporary technologies can improve primary mathematics.

The Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has made it mandatory for teachers to incorporate technologies in all subject areas.

Fortunately, schools have access to more powerful, affordable devices than ever before. Importantly, these are the same devices that many children already have access to at home, providing an opportunity to bridge the gap between the mathematics at school and their lives outside the classroom.

Literature around digital technologies and mathematics suggest new technologies have potentially changed teaching and learning, providing opportunities for a shift of focus from a traditional view to a more problem-solving approach.

This notion is supported by research that claims the traditional view of mathematics that was focused on memorisation and rote learning is now replaced with one that has purpose and application.

When used well, technology can improve student engagement with mathematics.

In a recent research evaluation of the Matific digital resources, the findings were positive. The students found they enjoyed using the digital resource on iPads and computers, and went from thinking about mathematics as something to be tolerated or endured to something that is fun to learn. An added bonus was that the children voluntarily started to use their screen time at home to do maths. The use of the technology also contributed to improved results.

Many would consider that the use of mobile devices in maths would consist of simple game playing.

A search of the App Store reveals tens of thousands of supposedly educational maths games, creating a potential app trap for teachers who might spend hours searching through many low-quality apps.

Although playing games can have benefits in terms of building fluency, they don't usually help children learn new concepts. Luckily, there's much that teachers can and are doing with technology.

Although technology is an integral part of our lives, it shouldn't be the only resource used to teach maths. When it comes to technology it's all about balance.

Associate Professor Catherine Attard

School of Education

Western Sydney University