Calculating math success

Which is better: having students use pen and paper when working on math problems or allowing them to use calculators to find the answers?

Regardless of the level they teach educators don’t agree on the answer.

Elementary teachers straddle the fence on this issue. Some see calculator use as a way to build numeracy. Others see it as a replacement for strong math skills. Middle school teachers fervently debate the issue for their classrooms. Although high school students may use calculators on their college entrance exams, many math professors refuse to allow the handheld devices in their classes.

Johns Hopkins University Professor of math and education W. Stephen Wilson once wrote, “I have not yet encountered a mathematics concept that required technology to either teach it or assess it. The concepts and skills we teach are so fundamental that technology is not needed to either elucidate them or enhance them. There might be teachers who can figure out a way to enhance learning with the use of technology, but it’s absolutely unnecessary.”

He saw the calculator as nothing more than a crutch.

How students benefit from using calculators

Calculators make quick work of extended problem-solving as long as the numbers for each step are entered correctly and the user understands the order of operations on the device. Problem-solving with a calculator becomes a teachable moment, both in the importance of entering data with accuracy and in understanding the function keys.

Another benefit of calculator use in the math or science classroom is that students develop familiarity with different technologies.

Calculators have the added attraction of being fun to use, but using calculators in the classroom have many drawbacks as well.

Drawbacks to using calculators in the math classroom

The use of calculators in the classroom draws skepticism from teachers, and with good reason.

Some math teachers are hesitant to advocate for calculator use in the classroom. They argue that students become complacent, relying on the technology to think for them, even for the simplest of tasks. Teachers worry that overreliance on calculators will strip students of their numeracy skills.

In a BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology) district, the added expense of a graphing calculator may place math technology out of the reach of some families.

The solution

Students in ELA classes use keyboards to type their essays. Even with the writing apps available to assist writers, students are solely responsible for their word choice and sentence construction. The technology is only a tool.

If we think of calculators as tools to complete a task, math becomes less about the device and more about problem-solving. Calculators do not solve problems. People do.

Students who use calculators in the classroom may find them handy when working with large numbers, scientific notation, or square roots.

The calculator serves a purpose only when the student has developed numeracy skills. Students who understand how numbers work are more likely to spot input errors. Without numeracy skills, however, the math student might not catch mistakes any quicker than an ELA student would locate a usage mistake and correct it.

Calculators can be useful for solving tedious and complex problems. Their employment in the classroom depends on the skill of the students relying on them. Calculators should never be a crutch.

Calculators should be a tool for getting the job done successfully and as efficiently as possible. According to NTCM, they augment reasoning, not replace it.

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