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Project Envisions Teaching Fractions by Touch, Movement

By Sean Cavanagh

A new, federally funded project will test students' ability to learn fractions on mobile apps through the theory of "embodied cognition"—or, to put it in non-science speak, manipulating and moving images and information on screens with their fingers.

It's a relatively simple idea, with potentially far-reaching implications.

Embodied, or grounded, cognition is a scientific theory based on the idea that individuals develop increased understanding of content based on their ability to create "mental perception simulation" of what they have learned. In other words, learning is enhanced when people can feel or perform an activity, as opposed to simply watching a simulation of it, as explained by the Teachers College at Columbia University, which is helping run the project. As an example, children presented with a story about farming are more likely to retain information if they are manipulating actual farm objects, rather than simply imagining that activity taking place, the researchers say.

The project, which will focus on teaching fractions to students ages 8-11, is being led by researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University and WNET, a New York public media provider. Its being supported through a grant from the National Science Foundation, which has funded research across K-12 education for years.

Currently, efforts to promote student learning through apps focuses extensively on having them point and touch on their screens, explained John Black, a professor of telecommunications and education at Teachers College and the principal investigator on the project, in an interview. The new app would take a different approach, by asking students to move objects across a screen. Black, citing a basic example, said students might be presented with a cup on screen, and asked to indicate at which point it was three-quarters full. They would move their fingers across the cup on screen, to indicate how full it should be to reach the right amount.

But Teachers College and WNET envision children performing far more stimulating on-screen activities.

They would use narratives, characters, and math content from Cyberchase, WNET's Emmy-award-winning math-focused TV show, and blend it into the research Teachers College is conducting on embodied cognition. The project will be tested among students in 3rd through 5th grades at the Harlem Ivy after-school program in New York, which served a strong proportion of academically struggling students from impoverished backgrounds. Ideally, the mobile application could be used on iPhones, tablets, and similiar devices, Black said.

The name of the project sums up the main idea: M3—or "Mobile, Movement, and Math."

Too often, "kids learn stuff in school that doesn't [connect to] the way that they think about the world," Black said. He hopes the project will break through that barrier. If successful, he added, "we'd like to take it out to other areas of math, and even to other subjects, too."

Initially, the goal of the project will be to develop apps for related studies on how students can learn from new technologies. But eventually, the apps could be publicly available to download, Black said.

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