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Beware The Calculator

by Jose Vilson on October 23, 2011

in Mr. Vilson

As a math coach, people always want to catch my ear about the use of a calculator. I ought to put my voice into the argument since … well, that’s what I do here. The two sides to the argument go as follows:

1) Students should use calculators because the machine can already do it for them.
2) Students shouldn’t use the calculators because computers (big and small) make kids stupider.

I’m not about to advocate for the middle, either. As a computer scientist and middle school math teacher, I’ve tended to lean towards argument #2. Too many students depend on the TI 30X for the simplest calculations. A few of them just prefer the device over carrying a few digits here and there. They’re still looking at the back of their marble notebooks for the 12 x 12 multiplication matrix. The reason so many of them struggle with division is because they can’t figure out how many times the divisor goes into the dividend, or why, when expressing a remainder, I also express that remainder as a fraction with that remainder over the dividend. These are all pieces of multiplication and kids struggle mightily with just that piece.

Then, once armed with a calculator, those of us in the number 2 category believe that students won’t make meaning of the numbers on their LED screens once calculated. (By some of the research I did, it seems we’re mistaken.)

Having said that, as the tech tide slowly rides over those of us in category #2, we should find a progressive solution that satisfied both of us. This new tech wave will make the calculation of basic operations (and even harder ones) almost unimportant in the future classrooms. Why not let them use calculators when asking high level questions? Why not ask more high level questions? Why not ask for context when the kids derive a numerical answer from their calculators, which is much more instructionally appropriate in math than just drilling a bunch of numbers into them?

We do have to be more thoughtful about K-12 education, and that starts from … pre-K and early ed. Pardon the anecdote (because anecdotal evidence should only be used sparsely), but one of the only reasons counting even mattered to me was because I could follow The Count on Sesame Street. The Count made counting relevant to enumerating things. Calculators can make it easier for students to get directly to the actual math within a situation, and grasp at concepts without having to worry about a little mathematical calculation.

But the next waiter who messes up my change will make me recant everything I just said. I’m just saying.

Mr. Vilson, who is actually a math teacher, believe it or not …

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