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Back to the Future!

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Blog Post #4 in the series "Finding Inspiration and Joy in the Words of Others" 

We’re going to be able to ask our computers to monitor things for us, and when certain conditions happen, are triggered, the computers will take certain actions and inform us after the fact.—Steven Jobs (http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes)

For the past few weeks, I have been wearing a fitness bracelet. I am still getting used to its presence on my wrist, and my current skill set is limited to reviewing my record of daily activity—specifically, number of steps taken and calories burned—and my sleep patterns. These data are collected from the bracelet through a smartphone app, and I will soon learn how to enter daily nutrition data—including caffeine intake!—all in an effort to develop healthier life habits.

This gadget and its informative capabilities have caused me to daydream about a bracelet that our students might wear, continuously collecting data about their mathematical learning and habits. Before reading further, ask yourself what this futuristic monitor might collect and organize for your students.

My daydreams envisioned a device that would—

  • reveal how much time was spent on a problem or assignment;
  • report levels of engagement and persistence—incorporating contributions from others, the use of various problem-solving strategies, and intervals of subconscious processing;
  • record connection-making moments when links to the real world or to other mathematical ideas are activated; and
  • assess strength of content knowledge for a particular mathematical topic or area.

You get the idea. How would our classrooms change if students were able to monitor and act on data such as these?

My daydreaming continued, and I created a second bracelet for mathematics teachers to wear. Our bracelets would help us answer these questions:

  • To what extent do I provide equal opportunities for every student to learn mathematics?
  • How well (and how completely) do I activate students’ prior knowledge before teaching my lesson?
  • What are the different ways in which I assess my students’ understanding throughout my lesson?
  • How many minutes do I spend talking? How many minutes do I spend listening?
  • How many different representations do I use in my lessons?
  • How frequently do I make connections within mathematics and to the real world?
  • How prepared am I to teach my lesson?

Would you wear such a bracelet? What would you do with the data and the trends that are provided to you?

In spite of Steven Jobs’s prediction, my fitness bracelet cannot take the actions that the data and trend lines might suggest. (Will a future version be able to zap my wrist when I reach for a second cookie?) At present, the data-driven decisions are mine to make, and, as a result, I have the power to develop and maintain the life habits that I desire. Wearing their classroom bracelets, students and teachers would wield the same decision-making powers about their mathematical and pedagogical habits.

Until these products of a summer daydream become a reality, students and teachers have two tools that can be used to produce desirable results in student achievement and teacher effectiveness. Metacognitive strategies invite students to monitor and become engaged with their mathematical thinking and learning. For teachers, postteaching reflection—supported, when possible, by data collected during the lesson—can provide the means to answer the questions posed here. As is the case with my fitness bracelet, time and commitment are required to monitor and develop lasting habits.

The power and the future are already in your hands! 


Tom EvitsTom Evitts, TAEvit@ship.edu, is a mathematics teacher educator at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania and is the current president of the Pennsylvania Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators (PAMTE). He is a frequent presenter at NCTM annual and regional meetings and enjoys helping others find, make, and strengthen mathematical connections.


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