Using Apps to Learn Math

Apps could be an amazing tool for learning. Using technology in general is essential in education to prepare our students for their future careers. We need to acknowledge the fact that technology affects the way we work, play, live and learn today.  We can’t pretend smartphones and tablets are not part of our students’ daily life.

As educators, why do we insist on planning learning experiences in our class without the use of technology tools? We need to incorporate them, and use them as the powerful tools they are.

Unfortunately, most schools are not ready for this.

It is not about “allowing” students to use/play technology for a few minutes after students finish their “real” math work.

It is definitely not about using math apps where students have to quickly answer a fact, to then kill a dragon, or an app where they need to beat the clock by answering math facts as fast as possible to win coins and stars.

Fluency is an important part of being proficient in mathematics, but fluency is not just memorizing. Most of the “educational math” apps are focused on drill and practice without any type of focus on the math practices or problem solving skills.

Fluency builds from initial exploration and discussion of number concepts to using informal reasoning strategies based on meaning and properties of operations. (NCTM 2014, 42) (Paragraph extracted from Developing Numerical Fluency by Steve Leinwand.

The best way to develop fluency with numbers is to develop number sense and to work with numbers in different ways, not to blindly memorize without number sense. Jo Boaler

If students memorize math facts and procedures without understanding why they work, they will never take an advanced mathematics course because they won’t know how to make connections amongst math concepts.

The creators of these math apps mean well, they believe, I suppose, that they are motivating students to practice facts because the games are engaging. I recently read a review about the best math apps, where every single app focused on using math facts to do tasks such as kill zombies, race on a track, or find secret gates.

The creators of these apps missed the point. They are only focusing on quick answers to math facts.

The idea should be for students to use apps to build their understanding of a math concept via experiences such using manipulatives to “model” their thinking. Ideally, it would encourage and provide a space where students can draw models or visual representations that allow them to make sense of the problem and figure out how to solve it.

Not a List of Skills to Drill

App creators need to look at all aspects of math learning, not only the drill and practice of math facts. We need more apps that help our students “model” how they are thinking about the problem.

What could be the criteria for these new apps? Students need to demonstrate a deep understanding of the math concept or be able to model how they are interpreting the problem with manipulatives. Perhaps the creators of the math apps could mesh their gaming ideas with the tools and strategies found in Braining Camp and Thinking Blocks.

Braining camp is a great bundle of apps with different types of manipulatives. It is easy to use, and the best part is that it does not provide the answers!

Here is an example of how to use base ten blocks to solve a problem using a place value strategy, making sense of what it means to “bundle” 10 ones into a ten, or ten tens into a hundred.

Base Ten Blocks app

Fractions are a perfect opportunity to use apps that allow students to make models! What does it mean to multiply ½ x ½ ? What does that look like?

Dividing fractions does not have to be a set of rules where students flip the fraction! There is no understanding in flipping, just computation.

Look at this app where students can manipulate the fraction tiles to visualize how many one tenths can fit into four fifths:

Fraction Tiles app

Here is another great math app that is not about quick right answers. It is called Thinking Blocks.

You can see how it gives students opportunities to model their thinking using bar models to represent the problem. Students can then use math facts or repeated addition to figure out the solution.

This app also has a feature where the problem can be read aloud; how great is this for different types of learners?

Another great thing about this app is that there are no time limits to respond. Based on Jo Boaler’s research, we know that timed testing is unnecessary and damaging, as it could be the beginning of math anxiety which blocks the working memory. “Fluency Without Fear” by Jo Boaler.

I am sure there are other math apps out there that allow for problem solving and modeling, so please respond to this blog so we can create and share a list of apps that promote student thinking, and not memorizing.

Until next time!

3 thoughts on “Using Apps to Learn Math

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