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Calculators Are Not Evil

The premise of this opinion piece is flat out wrong.

BEWILDERED SOCIETY: Calculator functions make learning math unnecessary

Calculators, which in some cases have blossomed into handheld computers, certainly make learning some rote mechanical processes unnecessary. But that’s arithmetic. "Learning math" should be about understanding concepts and applications not the repetitive crap that passes for the subject in most schools.

With almost universal access to basic calculators, it’s about time to drop such anachronistic algorithms as long division. And that leads to this statement by the writer, also flat out wrong.

Technology is helping us to be dumber — and it is not going to get any better.

In decades past, technology was also supposed to be making us lazier. However, that change wasn’t due to cars and TV remote controls and microwave ovens and other inventions. The choice to be a couch potato is just that – a choice.

The same for computers (and calculators) in the classroom. These increasingly common technologies provide teachers with tremendous opportunities to extend and expand the curriculum. It’s a choice to teach the same crap in the same way, ignoring (and banning) tools that make drilling useless arithmetic routines unnecessary.

6 Comments

  1. aschoolyardblogger

    I remember my first calculator. I used it to balance my check book. Not believing it I repeated the process by hand. I actually still have that calculator. One of the things I always see missing in the calculator as bad argument is the fact that if you don’t understand which function you need to use, the calculator is of no use. When you see a child using one efficiently they possess the conceptual understanding of math to do so. If you have the conceptual understanding you are going to be able to work through a problem without the calculator if the need was presented. I am always sort of amazed by people who don’t want to get past the calculator argument.

  2. Robert

    I read the entire article you linked, and it’s pretty clear to me that the writer and the one commenter on the web site where the article is posted are merely equating mathematics with number-crunching. (His example of how technology makes us “dumber” was how people can’t do fraction-to-decimal conversion.) In other words, teaching mathematics beyond the level of rote mechanics is a logical impossibility to the writer, because they two are the same.

    If that were the case, then sure, calculators pose a threat to learning “mathematics”. But as you rightly point out, math ain’t arithmetic. But for some reason, nobody in the general public wants to see anything different from math besides converting fractions to decimals and stuff like that.

    Corollary: The opinion of a journalism major about math always needs to be reality-checked.

  3. Robert

    By the way, I left a response on the newspaper web site and shamelessly stole your analogy about couch potatoes. :)

  4. Mike Anderson

    The Cult of Calculator does have its embarassing moments, though. I can barely stifle my laughter when working an example on the board and see all the business majors diving for a calculator to find the square root of 64. Of course, back in the day, the nerds did the same thing with their slide rules.

  5. Robert

    Mike, I point out frequently to my students that one good way to save time on tests (something they seem to always complain about) is to try not to use the calculator for every little thing — like calculating sqrt(64) or something like 3+5 (I honestly saw that happen on a calculus (!) test recently). So that sort of thing isn’t just embarassing, it can lead to significant time management issues.

    You also have to be careful with calculators too to avoid errors; my summer session calculus class just had a quiz problem involving raising -2 to the fourth power, and half the class typed in -2^4, which gives -16.

  6. Mike Stiber

    Just as one must walk before running, one must learn arithmetic before math (or at least before really understanding math). Learning to work the calculator rather than the algorithm doesn’t lead to a better “understanding of concepts and applications” — it leads to mysticism. People who understand math well have a good “feel” for numbers, the feel you get by rolling up your sleeves and digging in. This is true for all of the analytical topics I’ve ever taught. Students who skipped the basics because of the drudgery were really lost later on: they were able to be competent technicians under limited circumstances, but not gifted engineers or scientists. We do our students a disservice if we think that they can learn without hard, sometimes tedious, work. And that’s another thing that working the algorithms teaches: the value of hard work.

    Otherwise, how do you know that the numbers you get from the calculator are the right ones?

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