Differentiating through Computer Environments

“Compared to many other human endeavors, education has made very modest progress in the past hundred years. We’ve added thirty years to human life spans, increased farming productivity fiftyfold, and reached the moon. Yet a teacher from 1910 would quickly feel at home in a classroom in 2010.”

—Ben Slivka Cofounder, DreamBox Learning

Can we harness computer technology and the World Wide Web for intervention? If so, what types of products would be helpful: drill on procedures, basic fact practice, environments designed to make routine math practice fun, exploration with feedback? Many current computer products on the market offer these things, and more, but are these enough to ensure powerful learning?

Prior chapters characterized good teaching by dynamic assessments, celebrating what children do know, and then challenging in ways to support development. The learning and teaching were interactive. A few interactive software products do exist, but the sequence of the programming usually follows a predesigned linear progression of activities and the feedback loops are static and predictable: student does a and the computer always responds with b. The coding focuses on answers (in contrast to strategies), and when answers are correct the computer provides the next activity in the sequence.

But a linear progression of concepts and skills does not characterize powerful learning; powerful learning is complex and personal, consisting of diverse possible pathways on a landscape of big ideas, strategies, and ways of modeling. Powerful teaching (as previous chapters show) comes from teachers understanding mathematics development and the multitude of pathways, identifying what learners do know and how they learn, and then providing appropriate personal challenges. Can we harness computer technology to do this?

This chapter from is Models of Intervention in Mathematics: Reweaving the Tapestry, copyright 2010 by the NCTM, produced with permission of NCTM and the authors. All rights reserved.

Purchase the book Models of Intervention in Mathematics: Reweaving the Tapestry through NCTM 

About The Author: Dr. Catherine Twomey Fosnot


Professor of Childhood Education at the City College of New York, Director of Mathematics in the City

Dr. Fosnot is Professor Emeritus of Childhood Education at the City College of New York and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is the Founding Director of Mathematics in the City, an internationally recognized center for professional development located at CCNY and funded by the National Science Foundation. She currently serves as the CEO of New Perspectives On Learning.