Getting At The Purpose Behind the Calculation

Here’s an article addressing the usage of calculators in math class.  The author’s conclusion brings to mind an eLearning course that we were designing at work.

An activity within this course challenged the learner to calculate a ratio that measured a Key Performance Indicator.  To calculate this number, a little math was required:

(X*30)/Y = R

The variables X and Y are found in a report that the learner would generate on a weekly basis. And therein lay the challenge for our training design.  To ensure the learner had the information necessary to complete the calculation, the designer provided all of the numbers necessary for the formula (X=3, Y=28.65, etc.). The designer then asked the learner to calculate the ratio step by step.

  • The first question: What is: X * 30?
  • The second question: What is: ##/Y?
The HP12c - the only calculator requiring critical thinking skills for basic math.

The HP12c

This, to me, defeated the purpose of the activity.  Were our learners having difficulty mastering a ten-key?  Had we somehow supplied all our employees with Hewlett Packard 12cs?   Shouldn’t the application focus on finding the numbers necessary for the calculation, rather than the calculation itself?

Robert Talbot concluded in his post: “If a student can ace all the test questions about fractions but can’t do anything with a real-world problem without external prodding and validation from a teacher or other authority (“Is this right?“, “Am I on the right track?“, and so on), that’s when there’s real trouble, and it’s got nothing to do with technology.”

I sometimes find that eLearning courses devolve into a system that accentuates the technology used to achieve an objective, but not the critical thinking necessary to utilize the technology correctly. For example, my challenge with math was never how to crunch the numbers, but how to select the correct numbers to crunch in the first place.

For the course we were designing at work, the group agreed that completing the calculation was not what needed to be practiced. Rather, they needed the learners to generate a report, find the correct numbers in the report, and then enter those numbers into the formula. We changed the activity to reflect that.

  1. First, we linked the course to a sample report and instructed the learners to find the numbers they would need for their calculation.
  2. Next, we asked the learner: What is “X”? What is “Y”?
  3. Finally, we asked the learner to find “R”.

Yes, learners will still need to master their calculating skills. And now those skills are mastered in context with real-world application, constructing experiences from which learners can draw while completing the task after they’ve completed the course.

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