Wednesday, December 10, 2014

How do you find good math learning apps?

There are approximately 20,000 math learning apps available on the App Store (classified as such by their creators). Google Play does not provide the corresponding figure for Android apps, but presumably there are a lot there as well.

Most of those apps do little more than provide repetitive practice of very basic skills, primarily about numbers. They are essentially just animated flash cards.

How can a parent, or a teacher, decide which apps are likely to benefit their child, or their students? I’ll come back to that later.

First, let me say that there is not necessarily anything wrong with an app that is essentially just an animated flash card – unless parents buy them (or just download them, as the majority are free) thinking that putting them on their children’s iPad or whatever is all they need to do to improve their performance in math.

In the days when the gateway to mathematics, and indeed much of everyday life, lay in mastering the multiplication tables and memorizing a few formulas for calculating areas and volumes, mastery of the basic number facts was indeed enough to start with. So it’s a pity those fun learning apps were not available back then. They would have made the acquisition of those fundamental facts and skills so much easier and far more enjoyable.

Unfortunately, the very digital technologies that have put those learning apps into eager young hands have also provided tools that have rendered procedural mastery of those basic skills all but irrelevant.

In today’s world, we use cheap, ubiquitous devices to do our calculations. It’s no longer important that all members of society have procedural mastery of basic arithmetic. What is required is the ability to make effective use of those digital devices, and what that depends upon is a good understanding of number – what is often referred to as number sense.

Roughly speaking, having number sense means being proficient with quantities and operations with numbers. A person with number sense is able to represent number concepts with models, words and diagrams, to communicate numerical ideas, and solve problems involving numbers. She or he can flexibly compose and decompose numbers for computation and solving problems. They can evaluate the reasonableness of solutions to numerical problems, and make connections between multiple solution methods. They can communicate their number sense verbally and in writing. They notice and explore number patterns, make connections and conjectures, and communicate their thinking to others. Number sense goes beyond solving word problems and memorizing basic facts and procedures. It involves engaging in numbers and operations in ways that develop a deep understanding of the content, which provides a firm foundation for mathematical success. In particular, a strong background in number sense sets the stage for later success in algebra and other parts of mathematics.

If that last paragraph sounds like something that emerged from a committee of mathematics education experts, it is because in essence it did. You find language like that in the National Research Council’s 2000 report Adding it Up, (which you can download for free from the National Academies Press) and in the preamble to the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, which emphasize the development of number sense in young children.

For sure, you cannot have number sense without being able to solve an arithmetic problem and get the right answer. What has changed is that it is no longer important to solve that problem by the fastest method, or by a standard method that leaves a paper audit trail that others can check. Our calculating devices do those for us.

Much more important in today’s world is to be able to reason about the numbers in a problem from first principles, in a way that embodies the internal structure of the numbers. For as humans, we need to be able to operate when and where that calculator cannot: namely, when we are faced with a novel problem the real world has thrown up at us.

It was a lack of recognition that the world has changed fundamentally that led the consequently-Internet-famous “Jack’s Dad” to pen his satirical “letter to his son” that went viral on social media earlier this year. (See the next link below.)

Actually, Jack’s dad is an electronics engineer, so he was certainly aware of how much today’s world was different from the days of his own childhood. Unfortunately, as someone outside the world of education, he had just not connected the dots to understand what changes in education were required in order to properly prepare today’s kids to live, not just in our present world, but in the world they will help shape from it.

One of the best summaries of the issues behind that social media firestorm that I came across was the April 6 response to Jack’s Dad written by the math education blogger Christopher Danielson.

Danielson’s observations about different kinds of expertise rang very true to me. Having devoted the first part of my mathematics career to mathematical research, it was my appointment to serve on the Mathematical Sciences Education Board in 2000, and the close contact with leading experts in mathematics teaching that resulted, that brought home to me just how little I knew about how people learn mathematics, and how (consequently) we should teach it.

Put plainly, having a PhD in mathematics and a string of published research is absolutely nothing like enough background to speak with authority about K-12 mathematics learning. People like me can provide good advice on mathematical content; but not on mathematics teaching. That requires different knowledge and expertise.

My own university, Stanford, famous for its very high standards in research, apparently recognizes this when it comes to hiring new faculty in Education. While I cannot speak with authority for the School of Education’s policies, I have observed that no one gets appointed to the faculty who has not spent several years in K-12 teaching. (In addition to having done and published first class research!) Whether or not K-12 experience is official hiring policy, it certainly plays out that way, and it seems to me to be a sensible criterion to demand.

Going back to the standard algorithms and Jack’s Dad, a few months after his first post, on October 8, Danielson posted another excellent blog on the degree to which the position occupied by the standard arithmetic algorithms (in actual fact, there are many variations, so there is no such thing as “the standard algorithms) has changed in the educational landscape – from being the main focus as a method for daily use, to an interesting and historically important example of a set of highly efficient paper-and-pencil algorithms that quite literally changed the world. Their significance was a consequence of the dominant information storage and communication technology of the time: flat, static writing surfaces such as parchment, blackboards, and paper. (I describe that story in my book The Man of Numbers.)

I will note, in passing, that Danielson’s October post indicates that some math learning apps may in fact do harm to a child’s mathematics learning, an observation that should be coupled with my earlier remarks about choosing basic skills educational apps.

What put these thoughts onto my front burner recently were some discussions I was having with members of the Scientific Advisory Board for my educational technology startup company BrainQuake.

If you check out our company’s Team page, you will find we have recruited a number of world renown experts in mathematics education. Now you may think they are just there for marketing purposes – website name dropping. But you would be wrong. Each one is there because they bring very valuable, very specific expertise to the table.

To someone not an expert in mathematics learning, the arithmetic puzzles in our launch app, Wuzzit Trouble, may look as though they are just a series of problems we generated in an essentially random fashion, following the simple rule that the numbers should get "harder" the further a player goes in the game. But that is not the case. In a mathematics learning game, the mathematics ramp is just as critical as the level design of the game, and both require a lot of expertise to get it right.

(Interestingly, another name on our website, John Romero, is a world expert in level design – the ramping in game-play – but he joined forces with us only after we had brought out Wuzzit Trouble, so you will only see the results of his genius in future products we bring out.)

Which brings me back to my promise to provide advice on how to select good learning apps. It’s probably not a foolproof method, but a quick and easy way is to check out the website of the creators, and see who they have advising them on the learning side.

There is always the danger that some of the names are there for little more than window dressing, but the majority of education experts (indeed, experts in any domain) are not likely to lend their name to an enterprise they do not believe in. So the presence of names of distinguished mathematics educators should give you a lot of confidence in the product.

More to the point, the absence of such names should be taken as a serious warning. Quite frankly, it is not possible to design and build an educationally sound and effective learning app without a lot of expert input.

And I mean a lot of expert input. I bring years of my own expertise to BrainQuake, but Wuzzit Trouble would not have been anything like as educationally successful as it has, if it had just been me on the mathematics side.

There is your quick-and-easy quality check. If you use it, you will find that list of 20,000 apps suddenly shrinks down to a significantly smaller number. Fortunately, that number is not zero. There are some great math learning apps out there. You just have to choose wisely.