23 October 2014

The PhotoMath App is Good, and History Says Its Here to Stay

In case you haven't heard about it yet, there is a new education app for iOS and Windows Phone devices called PhotoMath. Most basically, the app utilizes the camera on your device to recognize numbers and letters, runs an algorithm, and then displays a solution on the screen. From there you can follow the solution it generated step-by-step.

Here it is in action.

There are two ways to respond to the Photomath app, really. One is a reaction of fear, and the other one of promise.

This app is really cool,  people! The computational power behind pointing a camera at an equation or expression and having it solved or simplified step by step for me (nearly instantaneously) should really impress us, right? My hope is that the PhotoMath app and it's future iterations will be the disruption in math education we've been looking for. How much longer can classrooms ignore the technology and force students to solve everything by hand (and then stop there)?

Let's look at a brief (and roughly estimated) timeline of math technology in education:
  • 1970s: 
    • Computers are cool and all, but we mustn't let them replace the computational and arithmetic skills of our students. What if the technology goes away?
  • 1980s: 
    • Handheld calculators are cool, but we should only give them to students once they've learned their math facts anyway. What if the technology goes away?
  • 1990 and 2000s: 
    • Graphing calculators are a great tool, but students still need to know how to do it all by hand. What if the technology goes away?
  • 2010s: 
    • That's really impressive that you can make full color graphs on your smartphone/tablet, zoom in and out, change axis scales, and locate points of interest with a swipe and a pinch, but they can't use those on "the test," so they aren't worth the time.
    • Wolfram Alpha can solve equations for you? That's a really cool tool for college students to use as they explore upper-level mathematics. I hope my kids don't find that and cheat. Besides they need to know how to solve equations for "the test."
  • 2014: The PhotoMath app

What side of history will you be on?
As I noted in the timeline above, technology to solve our kids' equations on their homework has been in their hands or laptops via Wolfram Alpha or CAS graphing calculators for years already. The PhotoMath app makes it even easier to access that power, but I think your attitude toward Wolfram Alpha should mirror the opinion you ultimately take of PhotoMath. Will you embrace the technology and lead conversations and work to push for lessons and assessment in your school that expect more of students than x=_____, or will you wait for someone else to make that decision? I think history foreshadows that you'll be dealing with it eventually, anyway.

Special Right Triangles - Really?

What's in the list you keep (internally or physically) of things we still traditionally teach in our math courses that just feel "wrong" in 2014?

Memorizing formulas is probably one of my least favorite things, and I know I have that in common with my students, so wherever and whenever possible! I like to teach them the concept on a pattern level or with strategies that have more than one application. In other words, if the only reason for me to teach it is to maybe get lucky and steal a question or two on a test, then I usually won't stress it.

I was having a good week with my Applied Math class. The kids have been more or less focused recently, and we were all getting along. Kids love Pythagorean Theorem, for some reason. Right up there with "y=mx+b!" It's hard to find a kid who at least doesn't think they know how to use it. Taking advantage of those good vibes, I would have rather rolled on into circles, but the ugly special right triangles lesson stood in my way.

I went through the trouble of having them use Pythag the night before to actually solve the SRTs, and my first example showed them again how they can just use Pythag on any right triangle to find a third side. Good feelings were still flowing, and then our first question from the book had a 60 degree angle and ONE side. "Try and do THIS ONE with Pythagorean Theorem," it seemed to taunt me. I took the bait and walked the class through the relationships. And one by onem my confident students fell to the wayside, and my focused, eager students started to check out. 

So, why? Why invest time in a chunk of knowledge that isn't necessary if you know  Pythagorean Theorem or basic trig ratios?

Here's a note sheet I plan to share with my students tomorrow to articulate the alternatives again.

21 October 2014

"We Just Want to Be Comfortable"

I went to the St. Louis EdSurge Summit at Ritenour High School Saturday afternoon. The event featured dozens of #edtech startups with tables sharing their product and passions, and a terrific keynote to end the day from Google Education czar +Jaime Casap, but what impacted me most was the student panel hosted in the auditorium after lunch.

The second question +Chris McGee posed to the group was, "If you had unlimited funds to set up your ideal learning space, what would you include?"

Accounting for my typing speed on an iPad, here are their responses:
  • A desk with matching pencils and notebooks, picking where you sit, no desks in rows or columns 
  • Students feeling comfortable, couches EVERYWHERE, because everyone loves couches, it's just uncomfortable sitting up in a desk - I can focus better on a couch
  • ATMOSPHERE, as inviting as possible, simplicity and complexity in a way to get things done
  • We DONT fall asleep on the sofas, it's not just the classroom, it's the teacher too, if we're in a cozy classroom the way we think and work will change
  • Availability of being able to choose our tools for what we want
  • Students interacting with teachers when districts are hiring new teachers
  • I think I focus on my work better when I'm working on a computer or tablet
  • LIGHTING is a big part of atmosphere for relaxing 
  • I can stay more organized with the laptops instead of using my binder.
Do you put as much thought into the layout of your room as you do the color on the walls, the alignment of your posters, or the security of your teacher desk?

I have a couch that I salvaged out of the "surplus: send to plant" storage area 2 summers ago that I put toward the back corner of my room in what I named the "collaboration corner." It's a decent space. I have a rug we were done with at home, a coffee table that I salvaged from somewhere else, and a few clipboards to write on. The only problem with the collaboration corner is that it's in the back corner. I don't feel like I can manage the students there when I'm at the front of the room at the SMARTboard (which is something else to consider anyway; should I be up there enough for it to feel like a problem?) or speaking at a student's desk in the front. So what happens? The collaboration corner hasn't hosted very much collaboration the past year and a few months.

So what's the plan? I'm gonna double down on the commitment to the collaboration corner and move the couch toward the front of the room.

Do you ever feel this way about the things those students shared? You want to believe what they're saying, that they're totally committed to those statements and that in the environment they described they would all be creative, productive little problem solving machines, but your experience with that starts to psych you out.

My hope is that moving the couch out of the back corner will separate the kids seeking the couch to hide out from the kids who just want to get in a spot where they can hunker down and work. The funny thing is, I thrive in the same environment with the same level of trust. I've convinced my curriculum coordinator to let me and a colleague go work at Panera Bread Co. this week on a website for the district rather than sitting at the table in his office. I'll sit there and drink somewhere between 6 - 9 cups of coffee, spread out my things, jam to some music, and crank through that work.

Here's where my put couch on Monday. You've got a week, kids. Show me what you've got.