The Calculator Controversy

March 3, 2017

Recently I reached out to one of my best friends who happens to be a professor of Mathematics at a university in Iowa. Even though we teach at different levels, we have been able to use each other as valuable resources in the past. To some extent, a student is a student, and we can always learn from each other. This time, I reached out to her to ask what trends and challenges she is noticing with her math students. She forwarded my question on to some other instructors in her department, and I was excited to read their responses. One that came up: college math professors are finding that students are “too dependent” on calculators, and are unable to complete basic computations by hand. This got me thinking about my 3rd graders…

The Easy Button?

Here in Tennessee, students are able to use a basic 4-function calculator on a portion of their state test. This wasn’t the case when I was an elementary student, but the test and the curriculum have changed since then. The test is more complex and it is also timed. I am sure that having students complete all test items by hand would take more time, and the last thing we want is for students to run out of time to show what they know! Are calculators the answer? Maybe. As teachers we want students to develop a conceptual understanding, but we also know that students are growing up in a technology-heavy world. We can’t fight technology- and we shouldn’t- we just need to find its place in our math instruction.

Balancing Act

So, how do we find the balance? Maybe splitting the test into 2 parts, calculator and non-calculator, is the way to go. I think the key is teaching students to know when they need to use a calculator and when they should be able to use other strategies to solve problems. Taking the time to ensure students have the conceptual understanding of the skill is important before showing them how to solve problems using a calculator. In my classroom, I do not pull out the calculators until we are doing test review. We look at problems first and decide if we need calculators or if we can solve the problem by hand. We even play games like Beat the Calculator to practice proper use of the tool. The novelty of the calculators has worn off, and most of my students are able to determine if they need one or not. I always encourage them to use the calculators to check their paper-pencil work.

Do you use calculators regularly in your math classes? I would love to hear about how teachers tie them into their math lessons, and what pros and cons you’re seeing as a result!

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