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Striking a Balance – Educationalists develop concepts for modern elementary school teaching

Simply using laptops and smartphones in class is not modern education. But these new tools also cannot be ignored. This is the balance Prof. Dr. Ulrich Kortenkamp and his team are trying to strike. They are developing concepts for digital learning in elementary school – in close contact with school teachers. The educationalists address how modern mathematics instruction might look in light of the ever-faster development of digital media and what this means for training current and future math teachers. 

The University of Potsdam has a long tradition of cooperating with schools in the region. One current project is “Digital Learning in Elementary School”. Together with the Rosa Luxemburg School in Potsdam, the university was selected in a competitive bidding process by Deutsche Telekom Foundation. Until 2018 researchers will now be developing concepts for using digital media in elementary schools. The foundation provides EUR 325,000 in funding. “At the University of Potsdam and especially its teaching methodology departments, we have many years of experience in using digital technologies in the classroom,” says project leader Ulrich Kortenkamp, Professor of Didactics of Mathematics and head of the department “Digitalization” at the German Center for Mathematics Teacher Education (DZLM).

Digital learning must be a part of teacher training 

Fractional arithmetic, power and root calculation, binomial formulas, logarithms, transforming terms, and geometry are basic mathematical knowledge taught particularly in secondary school. Surprisingly, the vast majority of graduates are insufficiently familiar with it. Time and again, professors and university lecturers complain about mathematics deficits among their first-year students. It is quite clear that good teaching based on the latest findings depends on teachers that are well-trained didactically as well as in their subjects. Ulrich Kortenkamp is convinced that the foundation for that needs to be developed at university – inter alia by using digital media in a meaningful way. To ensure that digital learning will prospectively be a matter of course for all school children also in the Land of Brandenburg, this learning field has to be integrated into the training of future teachers. The university has therefore set up a workshop for digital media in elementary school teaching, where teacher students of various elementary school subjects are able to participate in the project and prepare for their teaching experiences, while at the same time already trained teachers are able to use the space to continue their education.

To Kortenkamp, it is important that their project produces new concepts that can be applied, designed and further developed both in research and at every school. The objective is to modify teaching with regard to media education and the school subject itself. According to the educationalist it is not just about learning how to use a computer or a tablet or how to integrate it into the classroom, but more about improving the actual German, mathematics, English or science classes with the help of digital media. The foundation for this needs to be laid in elementary school, since the researcher understands mathematics education as a continuous process from first grade through university. Using digital tools in mathematics instruction for all age groups is nothing new to Kortenkamp; he and his team have already developed several related apps and computer programs.

Linking real and virtual action spaces

The implementation of the new concepts aims at enabling school children to learn effectively and meaningfully with digital tools and media. To this end, the educationalists base their research on actual learning situations. The crux is to link real and virtual action spaces and to create a symbiosis between them, i.e. working parallel with digital tools and traditional teaching materials. To Kortenkamp, having a foundation in the subject didactics is just as important. “We don’t work with commercial learning games without a theoretical concept, but rather want the findings of subject didactics to be visible.” Everything needs to be sequential in order to make it possible for children to build on what they have learned in elementary school and to be open for further development. “Children who familiarized themselves with digital tools in elementary school need to be given prospects.” The challenge for secondary school teachers is to be aware of what is being taught in elementary school and how. This makes continuing education of teachers all the more necessary.

The seven concepts for “Digital Learning in Elementary School”, which are being developed at the University of Potsdam, include - amongst others - building a flexible understanding of the place value system, developing abstraction processes to the concept of angles, and improving reading fluency by listening to audiobooks while reading along on a tablet. In addition to mathematics the project comprises the subjects of German language and science.

The researchers have developed an app for a digital place value chart. In this app, a number is displayed by the according amount of small tokens in each place value. When tokens are being shifted to another position in the chart, the numerical value remains the same but its representation changes. “The app is designed to accompany school children all along the abstraction process – from counting concrete objects towards a standardized symbolic notation,” Kortenkamp says.

Digitalization has not yet reached enough classrooms 

Kortenkamp hopes to implement as many of his team’s findings as possible into the classroom. “Teachers are generally open to it, but long-term success requires teachers to be willing and prepared to continue learning,” says the educationalist. Mathematics instruction has changed, but digitalization has not yet reached the classroom sufficiently – and this needs to change. Teachers often lack the time to delve into new findings in their subject or subject didactics. Kortenkamp demands that schools and teachers are granted opportunities to continue their education to enable them to implement the newest findings in their teaching. Teachers at the cooperating Rosa Luxemburg School are already very receptive to new insights and want to inject life into the project by contributing to it. That is why the researcher believes in the ultimate success of the project. “Thanks to the cooperation between school and university, scientific findings can be linked better with practical needs in the school, which benefits both student teachers and our school children,” says Katja Kaden, teacher at the Rosa Luxemburg School in Potsdam.

The Project

“Digital Learning in Elementary School” is a joint project of six colleges and universities, initiated by Deutsche Telekom Foundation. Its objective is to sensitize students and current elementary school teachers to the use of digital media in the classroom and to provide them with the necessary skills. While some project members focus more on media-educational aspects, the University of Potsdam focuses on developing and testing teaching concepts based mainly on subject didactics.
Duration: 2016–2018

The Researcher

Prof. Dr. Ulrich Kortenkamp studied mathematics and computer science in Münster. Since 2014, he has been Professor of Didactics of Mathematics at the University of Potsdam.

Universität Potsdam 
Institut für Mathematik
Karl-Liebknecht-Straße 24–25
14476 Potsdam

Text: Dr. Barbara Eckardt
Translation: Monika Wilke
Published online by: Marieke Bäumer
Contact for the online editorial office: onlineredaktionuni-potsdamde

Read this and other articles on research at the University of Potsdam in our research magazine Portal Wissen.