Using iPads to Support Communication in Math

When our schools were asked to identify their most urgent student learning need, many of them turned to the area of mathematics. Some were concerned with the students’ ability to solve problems, others with the students’ ability to comunicate their math thinking. Almost all of the schools indicated a desire to look, at least in a small way, at the ways they could use the technology in their schools to support student learning in these areas.

I have been working with several schools specifically to explore how iPads can be used to support students in increasing their capacity to communicate mathematical thinking and reasoning with clarity and precision. There were a few things that were established before we went to work on this:

– when we say ‘communicate’, what do we really mean?

– before we even think about adding technology, what do we believe about how students communicate, the foundation experiences needed to allow them to communicate, and the types of things we should be asking them to do that require this communication?

– if they can communicate their thinking articulately and with clear representation of their thoughts, but the math is wrong, did we succeed? The video below illustrates this trap beautifully!

The things that grew from this initial discussion were important. The students need a grasp of the math vocabulary being employed, they need to have computational strategies and an approach to solving math problems, they need to be engaged in purposeful and ongoing math-based dialogue with peers and the teacher, as well as the world around them. In some cases schools revised their “need” back to a problem-solving one, as they realized that the issue with the student communicating was that they had no idea why and how they had arrived at an answer in the first place!

Once we had established this common language, we could start to look at how the iPads we have in schools could support students in extending and deepening this learning beyond what they could do without technology (otherwise why bother with the technology).

The first app that became a vital part of this process was “Educreations“. For those unfamiliar with this app, it is a whiteboard app that allows the student to explain math thinking and their process, orally and with annotation. Ultimately it records the screen and allows the student to publish a finished explanation or tutorial online.

One of the things that made this successful was the publishing aspect. When students consider the teacher the audience to their work, there are certain things that they do not communicate, or communicate with clarity, as they know you were in the room and shared the experience. When the audience becomes one beyond the classroom, one who was not privy to the lesson and learning, the explanation of students becomes more precise and more considered.

The second immediate benefit of this app was in the reflection that students engaged in during the process. As they were required to break down their work and explain the steps they took, they engaged in metacognitive processes that allowed them to refine and improve on what they had done originally and adapt their strategies and methods accordingly. Educreations does not let you necessarily track this part, as the focus is on a clean end product, but it certainly promotes this type of thinking and behaviour in the students.

When reflecting on the types of math work we are asking the students to do, and inspired by the work of people such as Dan Meyer (see TEDtalk below), something that is clear is that students need to be able to apply math to everyday situations, or to contexts beyond the math lesson and classroom.

From this thought process, teachers are now working on how and where math fits in to other areas. Most have realized the benefit, when it comes to strengthening communication, of making explicit links between their language and math instruction and tasks. Specifically, teachers have reflected on the types of writing tasks they are asking students to do and looked at where math might fit (and in many cases they have incorporated Media Literacy expectations also). Some examples of how this has been done on the iPad include:

Little Bird Tales or Book Creator:

1. Students use this app to create a written/oral tutorial or explanation of how they solved a math problem. It serves a similar purpose to the ‘Educreations’ work mentioned previously.

2. Student apply their math work to a real-life narrative or situation. For example, a class studying the concept of rounding created stories in this app where two characters had a certain amount of money and were not sure if they could afford some of the goods in the store. The story took us through the conversation and allowed us to see the math thinking and logic applied to a real-life context.


Students used this story-telling app, which reinforces the elements and arc of a story, to again create fictional situations where math was needed to find a solution. One great example was of a pirate trying to figure out how much gold he had after x days at sea and how much that means he was stealing on an average day.

Strip Designer

Used the same way as described above but with a comic-strip format.

iMovie or Reel Director

Students used these apps to create video tutorials on how certain problems or concepts can be addressed. They also went beyond this to create interviews, newscasts or sketches where math and math related problems were the central issue.

We are just at the beginning of most of this work. There is still much to be done, but I am confident of few things.

-the students ability to communicate their mathematical thinking will be improved.

-the students will ‘see’ the math in the world around them.

-students will be engaged and motivated in the math classroom

– the technology is being used to do things that would not be possible (or as easy) without it.

What are some of the ways you are using technology to increase students’ ability to communicate in mathematics?

Posted on November 16, 2012, in GECDSB, iPad Project, Media Literacy, Thoughts and Questions, Visible Learning. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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