By Marsha Ratzel

“Siri, can you tell me what 2x+7 is?”

You know the future is rushing towards us when students no longer ask the teacher if they can use a calculator, but instead ask if they can ask Siri.

Siri shows a plot of the equation, what kind of geometric shape it is, and loads of other things that are well above the needs of eighth-graders. The image on the screen looked remarkably like the data one finds at the Wolfram Alpha site. And sure enough, turns out Wolfram is built right into the Siri help menu.

Clearly it won’t take long for students to realize how easy this is to access. In a year’s time they’ll likely be well entrenched in using Siri or some Siri surrogate to find the answers to math problems and potentially lots of questions in other subjects.

In that light, how should teaching change?

Short of banning smartphones (a short-term solution, at best), the evolution of artificial intelligence services like Siri means that there will be a shift from a focus on finding the answer as the endpoint to a greater focus on analysis. You have the answer, but so what? What does that answer mean in a real-life situation?

Should teachers just take the bit that they have traditionally needed for this kind of problem or should they figure out how to use this extra information provided by Siri to push students’ thinking beyond where it usually goes with eighth graders?

Taking digital tools and mobile technologies into account (not to mention Common Core expectations), it’s obvious that multiple-choice and true-false questions are not going to cut it anymore. Instead, educators have to design questions that force students into drawing conclusions and using the proof process that many of them haven’t encountered yet.

One method of practicing problem-solving is giving students both the question and the answer and asking them to explain how to solve the problem — how you harvest the information from the problem and show the steps in the solution.

Here’s an example: Instead of reviewing the commutative and distributive properties with a worksheet where they would be able to enter the equation into Siri and get the answer, you ask the question in a different way. You can ask them… “Is 5(5x+7) = 25x+7 always, sometimes or never true?” Or you might ask “Is 3x-9 = 9-3x always, sometimes or never true?”

In the first example, they simply have to answer the question and Siri can help them find the answer pretty quickly. In the second example, students have to test out their idea with different kinds of numbers; positive, negative, fractions, improper, zero and big numbers. They search for an example that proves the equation true, or they search for a counter-example that proves what they conjecture to be false.


Changing instruction in this way is a balancing act. Lessons are now designed with the assumption that students will use readily available technology, and build on prior knowledge so the learning will stick.

For example, when we study parallel and perpendicular lines, the objective is for students to learn how the coefficients of these lines are the same and how they are different. It’s easy to give them a definition to memorize, but will they remember it? Connecting the idea to something tangible that they’ve done will ensure that they will.

Many students already have free graphing calculator apps on their phones and use it regularly. They even send screenshots to show what they’re thinking or where they’re stuck on a problem. In this case, the app is used just as pencil, notebooks, and graph paper.


Siri is helping students in other classes too. She’s very capable of finding the capitol of a state, the 22nd president of the USA, and who wrote the phrase “Four score and seven years ago.” She knows the plot of every book in the Google Library and won’t hesitate to define “iambic pentameter.” Chemical symbols? Physical laws? A snap.

I wonder how other teachers might have to rethink their teaching and assessment strategies — with Siri and her A.I. colleagues at our students’ beck and call?

Marsha Ratzel is a National Board-certified teacher in the Blue Valley School District in Kansas, where she teaches middle school math, science, and sometimes social studies. A version of this post originally appeared on Voices from the Learning Revolution.

  • If all you are teaching is facts, “Siri” could be impactful. I know few teachers this shallow.

    • Marsha Ratzel

      Dear Guest,
      I think you’re right….teaching facts is shallow and definitely how to develop a love for math, for how it works and the deep questions that it allows for us to wrestle with as we strain to understand the world in which we live!

  • fem3

    I don’t see how this is at all useful or new. When teaching math or chemistry or any other problem-related course students frequently are given the answers in advance. What’s important is that they learn how to think logically and mathematically in terms of learning how to solve the puzzle. The answer is usually given so that afterwards they can check to see if they’re on the right track. If all Siri is doing is being a glorified answer key this is neither new nor ground-breaking. Supplying students with answers does not teach them to problem-solve, and it’s not as if teachers are not already teaching students how to interpret solutions.

    Even for other subjects it’s not that earthshattering. We may not have been able to look up the capitol of a state in the middle of the sidewalk, but libraries in every school have had these things called ‘books’ that made it very easy to look up facts. That doesn’t decrease the importance of knowing what the capitols of states are – it would be a very uneducated citizen if they had to spend the news hour looking up every second word because they’re so unfamiliar with basic geography they have no idea as to the difference between London, England and London, Ontario.

    A faster easier Encyclipedia is cool, and it’s ubiquitiousness will likely have a profound impact on human understanding – the ability to quickly look up unfamiliar areas of knowledge is useful. But this is neither new, nor does it negate the necessity of teaching our students to both know and understand the world around them

    • jhadid

      My understanding of this article’s point is not that the technology is earth-shattering, but that it exists, and that its existence has serious implications for teachers. The article explores those implications, and seeks ways that teachers can remain relevant and become more effective by pushing students to think more deeply and more holistically. A profound shift must take place in education, lest education itself will cease to be needed, lest our population will cease to be thinkers. And then what?

      • fem3

        Yeah, that’s fairly silly. Education has more fads and bandwagons than any other profession. The fact technology ‘exists’ doesn’t necessarily have an impact on education, nor does it mean that it won’t. That a teacher can now Skype in an expert to talk to a class about a topic is a nice way to bring in speakers…but it hasn’t fundamentally changed how we teach.

        A profound shift ‘must’ take place in education? Why? What makes you think our teachers are not teaching students how to think now? Or 50 years ago? In some school districts in some states the teaching of 50 years ago was superior, with a higher proportion of spending on public education, more resources and the hiring of teachers with better qualifications.

        Very little teaching has to do with the technology. If someone is letting the technology drive their pedagogy I would question whether they understand what they’re supposed to be teaching.

        New tools and ideas are cool, and provide many tricks, but at the end of the day they’re just tricks. It hasn’t fundamentally changed what it means to teach critical thinking, and in my experience those that think it does are the ones most in need of some critical thinking skills.

      • Marsha Ratzel

        Dear jhadid,

        I think you zeroed in on what I was reflecting on.

        It isn’t that I’m advocating for searching for answers. I don’t see the long-term benefit to students or our world…..but when when you consider how this disposition changes the way a student thinks about approaching a math problem.

        I see that students prefer to search for an answer rather than puzzle over it and struggle with it. I’m thinking that’s not a new phenomenon….all of us remember looking for the answer on other people’s papers or on quizzes that were given in previous years (I’m thinking about the legendary files of frat houses in helping students anticipate the questions on course finals).

        What’s changed is the ease of access to “other people’s papers”. Now it’s much easier to go and find an answer. It makes me wonder how to design for this searcher mentality and what kinds of mathematical literacy I should be developing in students.

    • Marsha Ratzel

      Dear fem3,

      You bring up a great point and if the only thing that is being learned is how to search for an answer, the idea falls short.

      To my mind’s eye, the issue is how to use this “found” information and how does the fact that our students are searchers change the way we think about lesson design.

  • I’ve thought for some time how allowing devices during tests would drive the creation of deeper thinking questions, which isn’t a bad thing.

    • Marsha Ratzel

      So Miles….what have you found in thinking about this. How have u changed your tests? I often think of DBQs in history as a model for framing my thinking on how ?s might change.

      • I can’t imagine a time in the future now where information / facts will not be immediately accessible via some technology or other. If that’s the case, then the critical skills become those that enable us to do something unique and creative with the content.
        Summative tests that pose questions Google can’t answer elicit responses that make use of those critical skills. Certainly seeing relationships, or _making_ relationships amongst discrete content elements requires some content knowledge, but we want to get beyond simply knowing how something works, to enabling creative engagement.
        Tell me about DBQ’s – how might your questions look within that framework?

  • All of this assumes 4th graders can find the letters on a keyboard, or a phone, and that a phone and/or keyboard is available to every student. This is amazingly distant from reality.

    • Marsha Ratzel

      I think you bring up a good point from 2 points of view. First when is it appropriate to assume the use of such a device. I’m not sure there’s a hard and fast rule…and I’d imagine a school district would be better suited for taking on this consideration. I could see that they’d actually let the students lead the way…in what ways are they already using technology outside of the school? If they’re using a keyboard at home on a regular basis, then I’d say it’s time!

      And your second point brings to mind the issue of access. It’s an ongoing problem that everyone will grapple with until there are wifi and devices everywhere. I also see this as an issue that localities are best able to study, understand and address. But everyone everywhere needs to have great sensitivity that it is a struggle for some students.

  • A passing AI

    You say “Short of banning smartphones (a short-term solution, at best)…”

    why not ban them from lessons or make sure they don’t work (eg not have wi-fi running), etc.

    Actually puzzling through a problem has its own benefits and learning “stuff” is also useful to enable higher level thinking to happen – it doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

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