A MiddleWeb Blog
I have been thinking about the issue of calculators in the classroom for a long time. Up to now, I’ve chosen not to write about it because I’m still not exactly sure what I think is best. But I’d like to hear what other math teachers think.
When I first started teaching, I was so excited about using calculators. I thought back to when I learned my multiplication tables in elementary school. We had to take timed tests, and it was crucial to get a certain number of problems right.
To help me practice, my parents timed me at home. Even though I was able to memorize my multiplication facts with relative ease, it made a big impression on me and I remember it being a very stressful time.
I can only imagine what it would have been like if I had been a student who was having troubling memorizing those multiplication facts. As it was, I was really glad when the unit was over.
The wrong view?
As a teacher, my idea was that students would use their calculators to work their problems and they would learn their multiplication facts in due course without the tedious drill and practice that I went through. I now think that was probably the wrong view to take.
Even though I teach older students, many of them do not know basic multiplication facts. It’s not just multiplication, either. Many students struggle with combining positive and negative numbers, and fractions continue to be an area of weakness. I can’t help but wonder: is this a result of a dependence on calculators?
I have a classroom set of 30 TI-Nspire calculators, which we use almost every day. I’m grateful for the ease with which the calculators allow my students to explore a variety of concepts. However, I am concerned that using the calculators will hinder my students’ conceptual understanding.
Is getting the right answer enough?
Students can sometimes push the correct buttons on the calculator to get the “right” answer but still lack any real understanding. I’m also aware that some colleges and college classrooms do not allow the use of calculators, so I do not want to foster a dependence on calculators in my students.
Recently it became very obvious how dependent my students were when I removed the calculators from the classroom for a day.
When the students realized they would not be able to use a calculator, they were a little disheartened. They eventually recovered and actually did a great job on the activity. Even so, one student said, “This is the hardest thing we’ve done all year because I couldn’t use a calculator.”
It was good for me to actually see how much they relied on the calculator, even to perform very simple computations.
I have read many articles and studies which seem to provide somewhat conflicting information regarding the relationship between calculators and students’ achievement. Much of the research does seem to support a balanced integration for calculators in the classroom.
I certainly don’t advocate a no-calculator policy. I just need to find the right balance.
Maybe the problem is more about me
After consideration, I don’t think calculators themselves are the issue. In my case, I think it’s the way I have implemented their use. I was so enamored with their potential that I overlooked some of their limitations. The result was that I indiscriminately implemented the use of calculators for every lesson.
I am guilty of not taking the time during lesson planning to think about whether using a calculator will have a positive or a negative impact on students’ concept development and understanding.
From now on, I plan to be much more intentional with the use of calculators in my classroom. Before the lesson I plan to ask myself, what purpose will the calculator serve in this situation? Will the calculator help students deepen their understanding, or is it being used in place of actual understanding?
After a lesson, I plan to ask myself, what was the result of using the calculator? Did it improve students’ understanding, or did it just mask their lack of understanding? Also, were students so dependent on the calculator that they would be unable to function without it?
Common sense and timing
Here’s something else I have observed: Often students are willing to write down whatever is on their calculator screen, regardless of whether it makes sense in the context of the problem. Students seem to consider the calculator “all knowing.” For example, when solving for area, if the calculator shows a negative number the student will write it down, even though a negative number doesn’t make sense in the context of finding area.
As Kathleen Lynch-Davis (writing at the NCTM site) points out, calculators “do only what you tell them to do.” That’s a lesson that I need to impart to my students. I can do a better job of teaching them to judge the reasonableness of what the calculator tells them.
I’m also beginning to think that timing is a factor. Early on, when students are developing the foundations for a new concept, it may be better to leave the calculator out. Then, when students are exploring or looking to develop a deeper understanding, the calculator can help them dive in.
What is your experience with calculators?
I’m very interested in what other people think regarding the advantages and disadvantages of calculators in the math classroom. Also, what is the appropriate age or grade to first introduce calculators to students?
♦ Debunking the Calculator Myth
♦ Calculator Use in Elementary Grades
♦ Rethinking How We Use Calculators in Middle School
♦ What Impact Does Calculator Use Have On Test Results?
♦ Impact of Handheld Graphing Calculator Use on Student Achievement in Algebra 1
♦ The Calculator in the Elementary Classroom: Making a Useful Tool out of an Ineffective Crutch