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Now They Tell Us: Calculators Bad For Kid's Math Skills

from the too-late-now dept

There was a big controversy decades ago about whether or not calculators should be allowed in the classroom (similar to the “computers in the classroom” debate today). After a number of studies showed that calculators actually helped the debate pretty much died down. Now, however, years later, along comes another study saying that calculators may harm math skills. Of course, the study seems quite narrow – looking at how well kids who normally used calculators could subtract, multiply and divide showed they had a lot more trouble doing those things without the calculator. I’m not sure how surprising or enlightening this is. Since they don’t get much practice doing such simple calculations, it may not be the easiest thing for them to do right away. That doesn’t mean that their overall math skills are necessarily worse. In fact, the point of earlier studies was that the calculators let them do more advanced math sooner, which meant they often enjoyed math a lot more. So, the question is whether or not you need to master the basic math questions when you can just use a calculator (or computer) to do that work for you, so you can concentrate on more complicated ideas? I have mixed opinions on this one. There is something about having an understanding of the fundamentals that seems useful, because it helps you solve unfamiliar problems by breaking it down. Still, if you’re always going to have access to a calculator, is it really as necessary?

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Comments on “Now They Tell Us: Calculators Bad For Kid's Math Skills”

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Chris O'Donnell (user link) says:

No Subject Given

Having watched my 7 year daughter calculate change in her head and tell the confused WalMart cashier what it should be, I’d say yes, the ability to do the basics is something we should stive for.

We are making the kids do daily multiplication tables – just like we did as kids. I think the ability to mindlessly do the simple math directly contributes to the ability later to do the complex stuff.

Dave Locke says:

Now They Tell Us: Calculators Bad For Kid's Math S

I’m age 60, so I lived through this the first time. The main problem with not having the skills to do the math without a calculator is that you don’t have enough proofing skills to know whether or not a calculator-generated answer is even in the ballpark if you misstep in entering the calculation.

Michael Vilain says:

Re: Now They Tell Us: Calculators Bad For Kid's Ma

I couldn’t agree more. I learned the ‘old-fashioned way’ with pencil and paper. Thank god for the Algebra teacher that loved math puzzles and engaged us with mental gymnastics and back of the envelope calculations.

When I used a slide rule in high school chemistry, I learned the skill of single-digit estimation. That guestimating skill is probably mostly gone these days.

The downside is that I never learned how to do square roots manually. I used the slide rule or later the calculator.

dorpus says:

Can't do advanced math unless you know the arithme

Working out the equations on paper, be it calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, statistics, whatever else — that requires the complex algebra of adding negative numbers and what not.

Yeah, go for the old-fashioned discipline of punching kids as many times as they get it wrong.

Marty says:

Calculators & math skills

Using calculators too early is not good, but for higher math, it’s the opposite. I think kids need to learn basic math without the calculator. Not only does it allow “sanity checking” results by knowing approximate answers, but needing to pull out a calculator for every calculation in life is too distracting; it interrupts the flow of thought to stop and key in the numbers. Sort of switching modes of thinking, and you lose your train of thought.

cavemanf16 says:

Re: Calculators & math skills

I agree, especially since I had to learn the math tables in school even though calculators were available. This has helped me in later life as I now can estimate a lot of simpler mathematical problems, but just as with any tool, I find a computer’s computational power and accuracy indispensible in my daily job (I do statistics a lot).

I think the calculator and computer are extremely powerful teaching tools for AP Physics and Calc courses for high school students, but I don’t think a 2nd-grader needs a $2000 machine to teach reading – what the hell are we paying the teachers for anyways??!?! (Sorry, got confused with teachers and school administrator fopah’s for a second there 😉

Michael says:

Re: Calculators & math skills

I am a teenager and in geometry without a calculator my math would be almost impossible and take twice as long. Mental math is no problem for me I can easily compute three digit number’s in my head. Calculators are only a problem for students who don’t strive to go somewhere in life and learn.

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