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A New App Poses a Big Question

OK. I have a topic I’d like you to weigh in on, as a reader and a leader. It’s a conversation we need to have among teachers, coaches, and parents about the kind of skill sets we need to cultivate in our students that will enable them to be ready for life and leadership.

A New App That Solves Math Problems?

I just read about PhotoMath, a new app that solves math problems by simply pointing your phone camera at the equation. Amazing! Where was this when I was in school, right?

The PhotoMath website claims all this and more: it actually teaches math in the process. The app reads and solves mathematical problems by using the camera of your mobile device in real time. It makes math easy and simple by walking users through the steps to solve their math problems.

PhotoMath claims to be “The world’s smartest camera calculator! Just point your camera to a math problem, and PhotoMath will instantly display the answer. You can join millions of users worldwide and make your learning progress faster and more enjoyable. You can use it to get help when you’re stuck with a problem. Hit the steps button, and see a full step-by-step solution!” Students can use it as a tool to learn math, while parents can use it to quickly check their kid’s homework. The claim is: with PhotoMath, it’s like having a math teacher in your pocket!

The app supports basic arithmetic, fractions, decimal numbers, linear equations and several functions like logarithms. Support for updated math theory or lessons are constantly added in new releases. Handwritten text is not supported — only printed problems from Math textbooks.


The Big Question

With this new technology, students can instantly receive accurate answers. My question is, will students actually learn the steps to solving math problems with this app, or will it cause their math skills to atrophy? Will we get lazier when it comes to solving problems because we have a smart phone in our hands?

Or… will it even matter?

Think back to the time when calculators first came out. Many math teachers would tell their students they could not bring a calculator to class, as they wanted the students to demonstrate they could solve the problem without any electronics in hand. Over time, however, we began to see that calculators saved us time and effort, so we all began using them. My guess is, you have one on your smart phone right now. It’s commonplace. But is that good? Should we continue to develop our math skills to keep our minds sharp, or do we agree that our 21st century culture no longer requires that of us, freeing our minds to focus on more relevant problems?

Personally, I’ve been one to solve multiplication and division problems mentally, just to stay sharp. However, I can see both sides of this issue. It’s likely PhotoMath will be commonplace someday, and when it does, we all may wonder how we got by without it.

So here’s the larger question: are math skills timeless skills we should continue to build in our kids, regardless of what technology is introduced into the market? What’s more, are there other skills we should consider timeless and continue to help them cultivate, such as:

  • Empathy
  • Discipline
  • Listening
  • Work ethic

What do you think? What do we allow technology to do for us, and what do we regard as timeless life skills we should always develop in every generation?

Looking to develop timeless leadership skills in students? 

Check out Habitudes®: Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes




  1. Steven Richards on June 24, 2015 at 5:38 am

    Good riddance. What’s the harm? Simply becoming “lazy”? Perhaps we will find more meaningful things to learn than math?

    • Luke Henke on June 24, 2015 at 3:44 pm

      Name one meaningful thing that doesn’t involve math please.

      • Steven Richards on June 24, 2015 at 8:22 pm

        One meaningful thing that couldn’t be achieved by computers doing the computing for us?

        • Luke Henke on June 24, 2015 at 8:43 pm

          Mathematics is not just computing. In fact, computing is a very, very small portion of what math is. Everything we do involves mathematics – all meaningful (and even non-meaningful) interactions utilize math.

          • Steven Richards on June 25, 2015 at 6:22 am

            Seems you know more than me on the subject. Would you please explain it to me like I’m 5 what kinda meaningful, or non-meaningful, stuff we’re doing with math that has to be done mentally, instead of done by computers? Kinda curious now. Thanks in advance, brother.

          • Luke Henke on June 25, 2015 at 9:48 am

            How do you walk?

          • Steven Richards on June 25, 2015 at 9:54 am

            One foot in front of the other? It seems that when i was young i learned to walk… long before i learned what people called math. Are you saying walking requires math? Now I feel really confused lol. Maybe you could call it math… so maybe the question is: how do you define math?

          • Luke Henke on June 25, 2015 at 10:09 am

            I’m going to steal from Imre Lakatos and say “a process of ‘conscious guessing’ about relationships among quantities and shapes.” You don’t start walking with one foot in front of the other. Tell a computer to do that and it still goes nowhere. Even if you give a computer feet, it may take a step but will fall because there is no compensation for balance, gravity, incline, holding someone’s hand. I see a picture of your kiddo, think about all the little things they have to perceive of just to roll over. The weight of their head (they don’t have to know the weight, just compensate for it), the torque of their pelvis, counterbalancing with their legs, and force to push on the floor. Already you kiddo does more complex mathematics than any computer we have. True mathematics is about seeking to understand those relationships and harness their power outside of those contexts. Unfortunately, much math that is taught is without the contexts from which they were derived.

  2. J Holestine on June 24, 2015 at 7:22 am

    Students who would use an app to get answers will most likely not take time to study the steps. As a parent and former teacher, I believe students need to commit math facts to memory and understand the process. We have become to dependent on technology as evidenced by the inability of cashiers to give change if the cash register isn’t working to tell them how much to give. When we had a Japanese foreign exchange student (granted it was several years ago) we learned that they were not allowed to use calculators until the university level.

  3. charlene.fonseca on June 24, 2015 at 7:28 am

    I can see where this is going. We no longer need to be skilled in preparing food, reading maps, or thinking–all of which will soon be a great pastime as we turn our attention to solving problems that need the understanding that comes with working on a skillset that we just buried in our search for saving ourselves the work that comes with thinking. Lots of prepositions here that perhaps an app can decipher. Have to say that it could be used appropriately, but wisdom is becoming a vanishing commodity, as well.

  4. kp on June 24, 2015 at 7:36 am

    “…freeing our minds to focus on more relevant problems.” I think that this is the key. If we were leading kids to do this, to actually identify and critically think about issues beyond themselves, beyond today then perhaps this would simply give them more time to do so. However, that doesn’t happen and this would just give them more time to do ‘whatever’. It also teaches them that when they are stuck, “there’s an app for that”. I’m afraid that this would just take away more perserverence. It’s not only about the math but it is also about the disciplines of focus, patience, work ethic, etc. They’ll not develop the feeling of accomplishment from an app. They’ll become smart-alec from the feeling that they’ve beaten the system but they won’t have the belief that they are smart.

  5. Bernardo Kariodimedjo on June 24, 2015 at 9:54 am

    I’m nowhere near great with math but I appreciate the artistry and wit to calculate with your own mind without any machinery aid. This app spells trouble for unaccountable students who wants to get the shortcut before learning to endure the long road.

  6. Luke Henke on June 24, 2015 at 3:59 pm

    I encourage my students to use PhotoMath,, and the back of the book regularly. But I teach them how to do so with integrity and for the purpose of learning. They know that ultimately I do not care about the answer; I care more about their hard work and thought. I hold them accountable for their thinking through my tests and quizzes. We need students who can think critically and problem solve – this is the purpose of mathematics. Studies have shown that the more math facts students memorize the worse they do! We have to teach students how to organically approach situations and work towards solutions. Almost every mathematician knows what answer they are going to end up with because they have a goal or an outcome they want to achieve. Best of all, they know there isn’t just one way to approach the problem. Definitely want to point to as a great source for understanding the research behind these ideas.

    • Tim Elmore on June 30, 2015 at 7:54 am

      You have a good approach, Luke. I enjoy reading how you help students embrace the process of problem solving. You are equipping them with the critical thinking skills they will need in life. Thank you for leading today’s students.

  7. Emma on July 16, 2022 at 2:11 pm

    People are looking for proven products. Testing get rid of the risks of information leakage. The main goal of any product is to benefit its customers. Testing ensures that the product will perform according to business requirements and perform its functions, you can always use methods like this

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A New App Poses a Big Question