Last year, I had to share them with a digital teaching tool. I had a half-hour of direct instruction with them during our math block, and then they spent another half an hour on the online math platform. A tool like that can be useful today, for example, if kids have to quarantine due to COVID and can’t be with me in the classroom. But it just can’t replace a subject-matter teacher in most other circumstances.
Here’s what I learned from the experience.
Kids already spend so much of their time with their faces glued to tablets or other devices, and it’s just too much. They need more time with teachers who know them personally. Learning this way is far more active than learning on a computer platform, and it’s particularly better for holding the attention of my fourth-grade students.
The program we used last year gave kids good problem sets, but it was more rigid than I am, for example, asking them to use a single strategy to solve a problem. In my class, I give students the flexibility to solve problems as they choose, with multiple methods available to them. Our state standards call for children to know how to solve math problems. If some strategies work better for them than others, that’s okay with me. In fact, it’s the point of having a variety of ways for getting to an answer in math.
I also found kids ended up wheel spinning a lot with the online curriculum. They’d get stuck on a problem and just couldn’t solve it. But the computer program didn’t support them and couldn’t help set them on the right course, nor was it able to tell them to take a break and come see me. Their confidence suffered, and it led some of my students to question whether they were good at math and whether they liked the subject. I’m not afraid to let my students struggle. It can build resilience and a growth mindset. I believe in productive struggle, which involves effortful learning and building strong habits of mind through challenging tasks. But that’s not what my students experienced.
Kids also thrive with rich student discourse, and that’s just as true for math as it is for any other subject we teach in elementary school. They like to debate how they approached a problem, why their answers may differ, and how they might use a particular math strategy to solve a real-world problem. In an online setting, in front of a computer screen, it’s just impossible for kids to engage with one another like that. As a result, the learning just isn’t as deep. And it’s definitely not as fun.
No matter what subject you teach, you have to build relationships with students before you can teach them effectively. And that’s an ongoing commitment. You have to regularly check in and understand what’s going on in their lives and what challenges they might be facing in and outside of school. It’s harder to do that if they’re spending half their appointed math time learning on a computer program.
Finally, I need flexibility with sequencing and how I use my math block, especially this year when I’m spending a lot of time supporting students who may have missed some content last year and need to learn that while keeping up with our current lessons. This can look different from day to day and having to give up half of my time each day to a computer program again just wouldn’t give me the space to shift lessons around as needed.
I’m not entirely old school. I appreciate technology. We have a new digital assessment tool this year that I’m excited to try, and devices and computer programs, along with equitable broadband access, can help us stay connected when we, unfortunately, need to be physically apart. But kids need their teachers. And we need them to be present and with us as much as possible so we can meet their many and urgent needs.