“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. Yes, that iPhone phenom with the sort-of-sultry voice.

When I asked Siri, I didn’t just get the answer to my query.

Siri shows me a plot of the equation, what kind of geometric shape it is, and loads of other things that are well above the needs of my 8th graders. I thought the image on my screen looked remarkably like the data one finds at the Wolfram Alpha site. And sure enough, Wolfram is built right into the Siri help menu.


Asking your smartphone to answer questions for you in school is not something I’ve anticipated. I had to stop and think about it for a bit. Clearly it won’t take long for my 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.

How will and should my teaching change?

Short of banning smartphones (a short-term solution, at best), I think the evolution of AI services like Siri means that the problems I pose for my students will have to shift from a focus on finding the answer as the endpoint — to a greater focus on analysis. OK, you have the answer but so what? What does that answer mean in a real-life situation?

One of the things I’ll need to consider is how to use all that information that Siri returns. Should I just take the bit that I have traditionally needed for this kind of problem? OR should I figure out how to use this extra information provided by Siri to push their thinking beyond where we usually go with 8th 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 I have to design questions that force students into drawing conclusions and using the proof process that many of them haven’t encountered yet.

I’m already doing some of this

I’ve already done a bit of this expanded kind of problem-solving using challenge questions. I give them both the question and the answer and their task is to explain how you solve the problem — how you harvest the information from the problem and show the steps in the solution. This way it’s clearly NOT about “getting the right answer.”

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.

It’s a balancing act

Changing instruction in this way is a balancing act. I’m looking for ways to design lessons that (a) assume students will use readily available technology, and also (b) tie any assignment I give them to 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?  I have to hook the idea to something tangible that they’ve done if I hope to give them this learning for life.

Many of my students have already downloaded free phone apps for a graphing calculator and use it regularly. They even send me screenshots to show what they’re thinking or where they are stuck on a problem. They’ve begun to do this because they see me using the graphing calculator, Geometers Sketchpad, and similar digital tools all the time.

As a result, I’ve adjusted my instruction around the assumption that we use these digital tools just as we use pencils and notebooks. And graph paper!

When we studied parallel lines, I used a graphing calculator application to show different lines. It was easy for students to see the graph and equation of many lines.  They quickly found the pattern of all lines having the same coefficient. From seeing this and using their smartphone app to test out different equations to see if they still are parallel, students “do” the learning and combine it with memorizing the definition. Doing both things cements the definition and the working knowledge together.

Another example: Estimation

Students just worked on another kind of problem where Siri played a big role — estimation. We’re using the Estimation 180 website where I’m trying to expand students’ number sense and ability to use context clues to estimate mathematical kinds of answers.

The problem that we tackled was to estimate how many diapers were in a large shipping package. Quickly, students decided the way to answer this question was to ask Siri.

I was nervous they’d find the answer and be done. Fortunately, she couldn’t immediately give them the answer.

Siri did come back and offer to search the web for them and that took them to the Huggies website where they found out that not all diapers are the same size. That led students to ask more in-depth questions about size, dimensions and how many diapers come in a typical box you buy at the store…all of which eventually developed into a pretty good estimation.

Implications for other subjects

If I’m seeing these conversations between students and their phones in math class, 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 AI colleagues at our students’ beck and call?

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Marsha Ratzel

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