It’s Thanksgiving, and although I happen to be in Tokyo this week I’m surrounded by Americans and the team I’m with (visiting Tokyo International School) has a strong US-component. As a result I’ve been hearing a lot of American English of the sort that hasn’t become that hybrid of British and American that you hear from Americans who have lived in the UK for a while, and who form my usual company. Consequently, we have had a lot of fun with that “divided by a common language” notion that Winston Churchill famously noted. When one of my fellow team members used the phrase “When life gives you lemons…” I noticed that she wasn’t intending to complete the sentence. She assumed we’d all know the next part was “make lemonade”.
As I took in the blank faces from some on the term wondering what lemons had to do with anything I remembered hearing the phrase a couple of weeks back when a teacher at one of our sister schools was responding to another teacher’s complaint that there weren’t any good iPad apps for teaching mathematics. I often wonder what lies behind assumptions like this. Clearly an app cannot actually teach a subject like mathematics. It can at best provide an opportunity for practice – or a real world context for using mathematical skills to achieve other tasks. Many of the apps that the teacher was complaining about were simply content consumption apps that framed mathematics skills practice in a games format or a simulation.
These are fine as far as they go but there are plenty of apps that come with the iPad straight out of the box that can be used to practise mathematics too. It was these apps that ACS Hillingdon teacher Sue Rankin wanted to explore further with us at a recent Apple forum. Thanks must also go to Sue Wakefield, another ACS Hillingdon teacher who had organised the event – to which school administrators had been invited from the London and Home Counties area. Each of the schools represented had implemented an iPad initiative over the past year or two.
Over the course of the next hour Sue (pictured above) demonstrated how apps like Clock, Maps and Camera that come free with the iPad can be used to enhance lessons in lower school and middle school mathematics. For example, Clock can be used not only to tell the time but also as a timer, a calculator of elapsed time and a reference for World Times (we were using iPad 2 devices and iOS7)
I’m currently sitting in my room in Tokyo at 6:48 in the morning and this is what I see on my iPad when I tap World Clock in the Clock app.
Clearly, there are plenty of opportunities to explore how the current time varies across the time zones of the world and work out time differences between distinct locations. Similarly, using the stopwatch function I can time different activities, compare and contrast the durations of each and possibly even present that data in another form – on the iPad or elsewhere. Looking around the room it was easy to spot the administrators and teachers making mental lemonade with these Apple lemons.
The Maps app has perhaps been overlooked since the well publicised problems associated with its re-release in 2012 but it offers an impressive degree of functionality to the maths teacher too. Here I’m viewing two different views of my current location (satellite and standard – a hybrid option is also available) and varying scales to cover more or less land in the same screenshot.
There is an abundance of scope for problem solving with scale, distance measurement and compass directions for the maths teacher to explore here. It could also be an excellent opportunity to create app workflows using compass apps or apps like iSpy that allow you to screen grab photographs of various places via local CCTV cameras.
By the way, I have no personal preference between Google Maps and Maps, and I’ve also used paid for Maps apps over the years too although I have yet to see one worth the money.
The camera and Photos apps bundled with iPads can also be used in creative ways beyond the simple function of viewing photos in the camera roll or photo stream. For example, students can be sent on a campus (or school corridor) walk to capture images of geometric shapes, Roman numerals, instances of bases other than base 10 or the Fibonacci Sequence or similar number patterns.
The session I’m describing didn’t actually finish with our making lemonade, but we did have a go at making banana smoothies!
Maths teachers have long recognised the opportunities inherent in cookery classes for practising maths skills such as measurement, conversion and timing. Our training day added a tech layer to these activities that involved using Book Creator to make an interactive book that captured the stages involved in making a banana smoothie. This was engaging and involved the use of the Camera app as well as Book Creator. As we debated which stages to photograph – and from what angle and with whom in shot, it became increasingly clear that we were internalising maths skills such as staging and process almost without knowing it. The lesson returned to my mind a week or so later when we hosted an IBM visit at my own school at which the presenter was at pains to impress upon our high schoolers that regardless of what their degree course was it was important to gain skills such as systems thinking and problem solving.
As the banana smoothies neared completion and the room filled with the smells of mashed banana, honey and spilt milk we prepared our books for presentation back to the group. We had been instructed via the directions in the QR code suck to our desk to use Book Creator. I happened not to have this app on my iPad although I have Creative Book Builder. My partner had Book Creator so we used her iPad. Neither Book Creator nor Creative Book Builder is a free app, but there is no reason why other apps could not be used to do something similar. Apple’s offer to bundle Pages free with all new iPads is obviously one potential answer to the ever-present budget problem schools face, but even Notes could be used to create a document for the banana smoothie activity. Teachers will principally be concerned with capturing the most essential pedagogical elements of the activity, and the choice of app is in that sense less relevant.