Digital Diversions: Keeping the Focus on the Art of Teaching in the Mathematics Classroom

Article excerpt

I am a passionate backpacker--I love the mountains, the magnificent vistas, the solitude, and the vibrant alpine wildflower meadows. Until recently, I lugged along my "antique" film camera to record the magical moments of my expeditions. However, I grew tired of perpetually changing clunky film canisters and being continually frustrated at not being able to "erase" bad pictures; once you've snapped a photograph with a conventional camera, it's yours. So, after extensive online research, I purchased a superb, state-of-the-art, 8-megapixel digital camera. This camera allows me to capture truly spectacular images that can be perfected with complex imaging software. If I take a bad shot (they tend to outnumber the good ones by a healthy margin), I can easily delete it or fix it. I can share my photographs with friends and family almost instantly and can even create an online travel journal to share my trip with the world. In addition to my new camera, I own a laptop, a desktop computer, a PDA, and several graphing calculators. I am, by almost anyone's standards, a devout "techie."

I teach at a school that is a technology lover's dream; I have every digital teaching device imaginable. While I am grateful to my school and to its benefactors for providing these tools, they would be little more than instructional ornaments if I hadn't taken the time to first develop and refine my repertoire of teaching skills. Fortunately, my school has not allowed the lure of digital gear to divert its attention from what is of primary significance ... the art of teaching.

It is easy to understand how and why technology can become the focus of our attentiono Technology is impressive, entertaining, and fun. I can't help but wonder, however, if technology is pulling us off-course. Technology is one tool in my pedagogical toolbox, a valuable and useful tool, but it is not irreplaceable. The most valuable tools I possess are within me. I have the ability to resonate with another human being's curiosity and confusion and to teach them effectively. Connecting with my students has very little to do with technology. I believe that good teaching emanates from self-awareness, and that this is where we need to initially focus our attention. Parker Palmer once said:

When I do not know myself, I cannot know who my students are. I will see them through a glass darkly, in the shadows of my unexamined life--and when I cannot see them clearly I cannot teach them well. When I do not know myself, I cannot know my subject. (1997, p. 2)

So, who am I? I am a voraciously curious and compassionate soul. I am a husband, a father, a brother, a son, and a friend. I am a mathematics educator who loves to learn, who loves to create, and who loves to teach. Being grounded in this awareness has enabled me to see my students in all their complexity. What I have learned is that when I see my students clearly, it is apparent that the single most profound gift I can offer them is the experience of mastery. If technology can help me offer them that gift more readily, then I will use it. If professional development does not address the fundamental significance of mastery and its effects on a human being's sense of self-efficacy, however, then no amount of investment in technology will compensate. Technology in partnership with a rich understanding of how the human mind and the human spirit interact to influence learning can be a wondrous teaching duet.

Through technology I have been able to cultivate new dimensions in the teaching and learning landscape, dimensions that were previously inaccessible. For instance, I can simulate the opening of 5,000 bags of Reese's Pieces candy in the blink of an eye for a statistical demonstration. I can guide my students in the exploration of elegant geometric relationships without the hassle of managing endless pieces of annoying graph paper and fixing broken compasses. These benefits are noteworthy, for the study of mathematics and science is a matter of national significance. …