Joanne Hardman and Warren Lilley discuss their recent article: iLearn? Can iPads facilitate learning in grade 6 mathematics lessons?

Emma Whewell

Emma Whewell

tablet, ipad, read-1075789.jpg

iLearn? Can iPads facilitate learning in grade 6 mathematics lessons?

Joanne Hardman and Warren Lilley

tablet, ipad, read-1075789.jpg

Technology is ubiquitous in the 21st century and even in developing nations one is bound to find mobile phones, tablets or iPads in classrooms. There has been a flurry of research regarding whether and how Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) can help students to learn subject area concepts. What is clear in the literature is that it is not the technology itself that can lead to learning gains but, rather, the pedagogy that underpins technology use. In particular, researchers indicate that a ‘constructivist’ learning theory should underpin technology’s use as a pedagogical tool. The word ‘constructivism’ has become extremely popular in education circles and has lost some of its epistemic strength through re-contextualisation into different contexts. For our purposes, we view constructivism as it is articulated in the work of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. While both theorists are quite epistemologically and ontologically distinct, what the agree on is that learning is active and that students co-construct meaning through transacting with their social world. For Vygotsky, mediation, or the guidance of a culturally more competent other, is seen as crucial to the development of higher cognitive functioning, which, in the 21st century, we would call executive functioning. That is, the areas located in the dorsal-lateral pre-frontal cortex that are essential for thinking in uniquely human ways. The theoretical understanding that students are active cognising agents who construct meaning through the expert guidance of an ‘other’ forms the foundation of the research we report here. In our research, we were interested in understanding whether the use of iPads as tools in grade 6 mathematics lessons could serve a developmental purpose; that is, could the iPad serve to develop the students’ thinking as indicated in their classroom talk. To track this, we rely on Mercer’s (2015) explication of exploratory talk as indicative of reasoning.  

The study

This research was carried out in two private schools in the Western Cape Province of South Africa. Private schools in South Africa are not affiliated with government and receive no government subsidies. As such, they are very expensive. We chose to focus our research on grade 6 students because they are developmentally on the cusp of concrete and formal thinking and are, therefore, interesting to observe during problem-solving. Our rationale for focusing on mathematics lessons was twofold: first, South Africa performs extremely badly in international benchmarking tests of mathematics and second, technologies such as iPads tend to be used more frequently in mathematics lessons. The research adopted a case study design with each grade 6 class forming a single case. We focused on student talk as an external representation of internal thinking. In particular we are interested in tracking the type of dialogical interactions that are indicative of exploratory talk, talk that has been shown to lead to reasoning. Our NVIVO analysis, then, focused on identifying the following indicators of exploratory talk:

(1)Why questions. This kind of question requires an explanation, and if therefore open, potentially leads to communicative interaction.

(2)What else statements and questions. When someone asks ‘what else’, they are also opening a potential discussion rather than closing discussion.

(3)How questions also potentially open communication by calling on the speaker to explain the processes used in problem solving.

(4)Explain statements lend themselves to opening communication by requiring the speaker to explain their thinking.

(5)Give a reason statement. These statements, like explain statements, require that the speaker externalise their thinking processes in problem solving.

(6)Because, if, I think, would and could: These terms, drawn directly from the work of Mercer (2005), were used by him to assess primary students’ reasoning (Hennessy et al., 2020).

We reasoned that if we found this type of talk in the classroom, it would be indicative of children’s critical thinking.

Data were collected over the space of a lesson. Of interest to us was that both teacher’s classrooms we studied set students’ tasks to do in groups using the iPad. The fact that the lesson was not a didactic one then, set the stage for the possibility of dialogical interaction between the students.


Findings indicated that the nature of the interactive task set by the teachers in both contexts enabled students to use the iPads to aid in problem-solving. The type of talk generated between students contained instances of what Mercer calls exploratory talk, that is, talk that is indicative of reasoning. This is clearly illustrated in the data which can be accessed through the link below to the paper. What this suggests to us, then, is that iPads are potentially developmental tools when used in interactive, problem-solving scenario

Joanne Hardman is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at the University of Cape Town. A Commonwealth Scholar, she obtained her PhD in 2008. She currently holds the Distinguished Teachers Award at UCT for her work with students and in curriculum design and implementation. She is also a recipient of the Mellon Young Scientist award for her work on child development. She has published numerous articles, reports and book chapters in her field of research interest, developmental psychology and Cultural Historical Activity Theory. Her latest book, A Cultural-Historical Approach to Pedagogical Transitions was published in 2023. Joanne’s research is predominantly in child development and teaching and learning, with a specific focus on the use of technology in educational and home settings. She is an NRF rated scientist and serves as exco member for Africa of the International Society for Cultural Historical Activity research and secretary for the International Associate for Cognitive Education and Psychology


Warren Lilley is a lecturer in the School of Education within the Psychology of Education stream. Developed through his extensive experience as an educator and teacher-trainer, his research focuses on the question of digital equity and meaningful integration of technology within the classroom. His work empirically and theoretically explores these questions around educational transformation using formative-intervention methodologies, which focus on how educators and students can transform their classroom practices. Additionally, Warren continues to contribute his expertise and experience to the design and facilitation national teacher development interventions and courses focusing on educational technology integration.