Tuesday, May 29, 2007

On the Use of Calculators by Students

As a math teacher for most of the past fourteen years, I get a lot of questions about when, whether, and which calculators should be used by students. This subject gets a lot of attention from time to time when someone or some company recommends that little kids (even kindergarten students!) should be given unfettered access to calculators...of course, the littlest students maybe should just have 4-function calculators with jumbo buttons.

Most people older than me have a predictable (and generally correct) response: Ludicrous! These children should have to learn their math facts and computation skills the old-fashioned, tried-and-true way: By doing it manually!

Let me share a few bits of wisdom on this topic:

1) The older generation is right about this: There is no good substitute for making students learn to do basic mathematics in their head, or on paper with pencil. They need to know addition facts, times tables, and, yes, even how to divide two fractions. Everyone should know these, for one cannot really have "mathematical functionality" in our society without such basic skills.

2) There is a place for calculators. In the elementary school, however, it is a small place. Calculators can be occasionally used by the discerning teacher to emphasize, review, or otherwise augment a lesson. I think most elementary students actually like the novelty factor of using a calculator from time to time, and this is healthy. [Aside: My children received a couple of $1 dollar-store calculators for Christmas gifts—one of the most fun-per-dollar-spent gifts ever given in our home. They love them, but Daddy still makes them learn their facts without it.] And given the fact that most standardized tests now (or likely soon will) allow for calculator use, there is a benefit to students being able to function with them. In the junior high, calculator use should still be occasional, but as students (by this point) should be fluent with computation, using valuable class time to slog through basic but time-consuming calculations is not usually efficient.

3) In the upper grades, calculators are a useful tool. In some cases, they are necessary (how many of us know what the square root of 67 is, or cos 34°, or ln 11 ?), unless you want to go back to using books of tables, as was common practice 45 years ago. But here is the danger: High school students' knowledge of basic computational facts seems to be inversely proportional to their calculator usage! I have told my junior and senior students that I wanted to see them in a mental math face-off with the 5th or 6th graders. I think they're scared! I think the 5th and 6th graders have a real chance of beating them!

In summary, all students need to be fluent with basic computations and estimations. Students ought to be able to calculate change mentally, estimate simple interest with or without a pencil, and know how to find 30% off the price of that sale item in the mall...as well as the sales tax they'll pay for it. Perhaps in another entry, I'll discuss the merits of graphing calculators vs. other kinds.

1 comment:

David McGuire said...

Welcome to the world of blogging, where you can spend as little or as much time as you like. You are off to a good start. I have found that my blog gives me a chance to comment on whatever I think is pertinent and important. It also gives me a chance to shamelessly publish photos of my family and friends.

May I recommend the blog of a college classmate and colleague from BJU. That would be Rob Loach's "ivman's blague," which you can access by clicking on http://blog.ivman.com/.

Keep up the good work; I will add you to my "recommended list" of bloggers.