Why is Math Education Software Lacking?

Kids use the computer for everything from socializing to gaming to math homework – that is, until they reach algebra. In 1988 the Rand Corporation reported that instructional software is great for simple math drills and teaching basic procedures, but it faltered beyond that point. Even with today’s advances in technology the market lacks effective software to help students become proficient in algebra and higher levels of math.

John Barnes from Information Week points out that this is a surprising since a quarter of a century ago the technology was developed that teaches strategy, which is a necessary component in order for students to learn how to effectively solve problems on their own.

A basic algebraic equation can have at least six different strategies that could be used to yield the correct solution. The basis of how proficient a student is at solving these problems is their ability to decide which strategy is best for each equation. This becomes more important as students reach higher levels of math.

Yet most educational software does not teach strategy even though the technology has been available for a long time.

Jane Healy, an educational psychologist,  found that childhood environments also lacked development in another critical area for math: executive function.

It was another, bigger piece of the same problem Rand had found. Executive function is the part of the mind that plans, follows, assesses and re-plans a pathway through a complicated process. It’s the difference between following a recipe and cooking from scratch, painting by the numbers and painting, or running a checklist and fixing a motor. It’s essential for all applied math above the most basic level, as well as for critical thinking and everyday reasoning.

It’s imperative that students develop executive function by choosing and using problem solving strategies. Unfortunately, most software is merely just lecture material with animation, graphics and a self check function.

However, there are some programs that have been developed that teach partial strategy and executive function. Barnes has broken them down into three categories:

 – Hinters: These offer a strategy hint with each problem. They at least make students aware that there are strategies, and that your choice of them matters…

– Executors: These go a step further by asking the student to input a problem from a textbook, handout or other program, and then choose a strategy from a list. The software then follows that strategy to write a perfect show-your-work homework answer…

– Steppers: These not only enable strategy selection but also let students verify each step sequentially, encouraging them to try on their own rather than just copy perfect homework…

While these programs are a step in the right direction, the market still lacks software that properly teaches strategy. The good news is the technology exists to create it. Now someone just needs to have the vision and the initiative to do so.