I really thought this particular argument was over. In Chicago schools there’s a debate going on over the use of calculators in math classes. Not in elementary school but in high school Algebra and higher level courses, and in college math classes. The problem according to some teachers is that students can solve difficult equations by just punching a few buttons. They also worry that students will not be prepared for college-level math classes.

When I last had a classroom of my own ten years ago (I’m now one of those evil central office types :-), we were just beginning to use "graphing calculators" and trying to figure out where they might fit in the curriculum. Although I never had enough of them to use regularly in my classroom, I loved the idea of reducing the amount of drill we did and spending more time on problem solving. However, many of my colleagues at that time (including science teachers) voiced the same complaints as the teachers in Chicago, often banning the use of the devices in their classes.

Instead of complaining about this technology, teachers should be asking a fundamental question: how can these devices help kids learn the concepts as well as the mechanics? Before the high powered calculators made their appearance, we spent a lot of time having students learn and practice using a variety of algorithms. Most of us didn’t have a lot of time left to consider where those problem came from and why the solution was important. These calculators (which are now mini computers) allow teachers to shift that allocation and devote more time to problem creation, solution, and analysis. That part was always more fun anyway.

Before my math teacher friends jump all over me, I need to add I still believe students still need to learn some hand manipulations of these mathematical structures. They need to get their hands dirty as part of learning the basic concepts of the mathematics. But you can’t ignore that high-powered handheld computers are a fact of life in math and science today. In additional to teaching mathematical concepts, one of our tasks should also be to teach students when to use their calculators and how to make the best use of them as learning tools.

For those of you who are not math teachers, roughly translated all this means these calculators allow us to spend more time on those mean, nasty word problems instead of "do problems 1-40 on page 186". Trust me, it’s good for you. And maybe it will help answer the age-old question "When am I ever going to use this?".