Modern Learning with Modern Tools

We are a tool using species. Our use of tools defines us and our survival now and in our past, is dependent upon our capacity to discover, invent and use tools. 

Our use of tools has always been a driver of change and innovation. From earlier times the way that we live has been shaped by the tools that we had at our disposal and the affordances which came with them. 

Once our survival needs were met through our use of tools, once we were able to construct shelters, protect ourselves from the insults of weather, wild beasts and marauding neighbours, our use of tools became connected to our productive capacities. This remains the same today. The farmers of the modern world are expected to be far more productive thanks to the tools at their disposal than were the farmers of the pre-industrial era whose output was limited by the power of their muscles and the basic tools with which they toiled. In every aspect of our lives tools have allowed us to do more in less time and with far greater efficiency than was previously possible. 

The exception to this rule seems to be within certain aspects of learning. While we are more than happy to embrace tools which free us of the burden of physical labour, we are reluctant to do the same with particular aspects of cognitive labour. 

We do have some seemingly magical tools for cognitive work at our disposal today.

For generations, the calculator was the gold standard for making mental work easy. Armed with their pocket calculator even the most challenging of equations would succumb to the calculating capacities of any student and yet today even this mighty tool seems quite ordinary. 

The modern student will tackle the highest realms of mathematics armed with tools like ‘PhotoMath’. This is the sort of tool that seems to defy the laws of what should be possible for anyone born prior to 2007 when the iPhone became a reality. PhotoMath allows its users to point their phone’s camera at a mathematical question, even one hurriedly written on a piece of paper or whiteboard and it will not only return an answer, it will explain how it was achieved. The user sees the step by step process used to solve the equation and it works with all manner of mathematics including the sort of advanced algebra that gives many students of mathematics nightmares. It is calculator and maths tutor in one. 


Before teachers of other domains relax in the belief that they are safe from such technological tools, ‘Socratic’ provides a similar experience across a widening range of disciplines. Socratic overcomes the tedium of having to type text into a search engine, but its real power comes from the artificial intelligence behind it. As it is used by more people and is exposed to more and more questions it will learn how to best respond. Tools like Socratic and PhotoMath become more capable as their user base expands. We are seeing more of these tools emerge as tech giants explore what they can do with enormous data sets and access to massive computing power. Artificial assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon's Alexa and Google Home are all a part of this response. Each use sophisticated voice analysis tools and artificial intelligence to provide immediate access to the information we want. Google Translate serves as another example of this technology. Thanks to machine learning, backed by massive amounts of data and computing power, Google is able to analyse an image of text in one language and convert it to another. The magical touch is that preserves the font and colour of the original text and will even then read the text to you in either the original or translated form.

There has been a distinct shift from the early days of computing which were marked by questions around 'how can we make our processes faster?', to modern times when we are asking 'what can we do with all this computing power?”. 

Tools like ‘PhotoMath’ present educators with a genuine challenge and leave many asking should we allow our students to use tools such as these? There is the concern that if our students have access to these tools they will use them to pass the test, but will they gain the knowledge they require. Further, there is the worry that students will use these tools to gain an unfair advantage on assessments which rank them against other students. Some teachers will see such tools as an easy way out and worry that students will not learn to overcome difficulty and challenge if they are able to use tools that make solving even complex problems easy. 

All of these concerns are valid and deserve consideration. The inescapable reality is that tools like this are only going to become ever more powerful and ever more prolific. Our students will be making use of them and we can only hope to restrict their use during school hours. 

The better response might be to embrace the tools that we have and then understand what learning our students will require so that they can become masters of the tools they have and not their servants. If I am armed with a tool like ‘PhotoMath’ what mathematical knowledge do I require to best utilise its affordances? What questions become reasonably accessible by a student empowered with such a tool? How do I move from being a teacher who asks my students questions to one who requires my students to be problem finders and how do they then use the tools they have, to find answers and then use their wisdom to explain why they are valid? In essence, how might we use tools like ‘PhotoMath’ to move our students beyond the doing of calculations and into the creative and exciting world of mathematical thinking?

By Nigel Coutts