Nan Austin

July 18, 2013

On Campus: School tech calculates, fractions divide

From the mailbag: Graphing calculator? There's an app for that. One in 3 teens has a smart phone and more schools welcome them as an affordable alternative to buying computers. Teaching fractions gets a makeover.

On Campus

The latest on local schools and education

Out of the In-Box:

-- Just as college students were running out of hands to manage their smart phones, touch-screen laptops and balance a mega-syllabic coffee without pulling on their ear buds, there comes one less gotta-have contraption to manage.

A Texas Instruments graphing calculator now downloads as a tablet app for $29.99.   For those of us who remember investing half a rent check back in the day for one of those prized symbols of upper math know-it-all-ness, this opens a new era.

Now anyone can have one.

They still sell hand-helds, too. One for $139 can go where no tablet can, into the SAT test room. 

-- This just in from Amplify, maker of tablets for schools: Worldwide, tablet sales grew about 70% from 2012 to 2013 and are projected to surpass the sale of laptops and desktops by 2015.

More than one-third of U.S. teens own smartphones, and nearly one-quarter have tablets, according to a survey of 558 teachers they funded (margin of error 4 percent). 

The survey found, no surprise, that most schools are using carts to share tablets between classrooms but would like to have the money to buy a computer or tablet for every student.

About 23 percent of schools encourage kids to use their own phones or other technology in class, called BYOD (bring your own device). This now surpasses those with policies against bringing such devices (15 percent).  

-- An article by Sarah Sparks in this week's Education Week enumerates better ideas for teaching fractions, which under common core begins in third grade.  

The article quotes Linda Gojak, president of the National Council of teachers of Mathematics in Reston, Va. Traditionally, she said, the theory was to teach all about adding and multiplying whole numbers, "then all of a sudden you get to fractions and it's a whole new world of what to do ... It's one of the hardest things for kids to get their heads around."

Math teachers listed fractions and the woes of word problems as key culprits when students struggle in algebra in a study by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, a federal task force. Researchers say understanding of fractions in fifth grade best predicts how well students will do in high school math.

There actually is a National Center on Improving the Learning of Fractions, based at the University of Delaware. 

The down low (a bigger thing than a down high): Lay off those pie charts, colored grids and endless repetition of procedures. The best fractions strategies out there seem to be getting down to what each fraction equals, plotting examples on number lines, playing with different ways of seeing equivalents and dividing them through to the decimals.

Games and groups make long stints solving problems more palatable, dressing up the basic drill. But in the end kids need to focus less on fractions' rote rules that make no sense and more on what that line in the middle means.

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