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Getting Past the Obsolete

This year is the 40th anniversary of the hand-held calculator and educators (and others) continue to worry about whether their use in the classroom is a good thing.

But as the technology continues to advance, a question remains: Are the devices helping or hurting students? Educators are deadlocked over whether calculators are helping create a more numerate society capable of claiming the next technological breakthrough or making students technology-dependent and mathematically insecure.

First of all, all of us are already “technology-dependent”. How many adults do you know perform anything more than basic arithmetic without the use of some electronic device?

As for “mathematically insecure”, that’s pretty much the majority of Americans over the age of twelve. But that’s due to the general attitude of society towards science and math, not calculators.

While it’s still necessary for kids to learn arithmetical facts and to be able to perform basic computations on their own, there comes a point where we need to teach them how and when to use a calculator.

Recently on a math listserv I subscribe to, a teacher planning a presentation asked us to offer some suggestions for the “topics, skills, and habits of mind that we no longer need to teach because they are obsolete”.

The calculator, and especially the graphing variety (mini computers, really), has rendered large chunks of what we used to consider “essential” into that category.

Or at least it should have. Unfortunately, processes like long division, most operations with fractions, and at least a quarter of the “standard” Algebra 1 curriculum still take up far too much class time.

Time that could be better spent helping students understand the concepts and applications of math with the grunt arithmetical work relegated to the machines where it belongs.

math, education, calculator, obsolete


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  1. Dave

    Knowing some of the basic math skills obsoleted by calculators makes more advanced maths possible. The idea of removing parts of the standard math curriculum — without a clear plan for ending up with students with more advanced math skills because of it — seems too close to policy by math anxiety. I just read a book on Goldbach’s Conjecture, though, so I’m not unbiased.

    Perhaps not a traditional math class, but a truly rigorous class about money management seems like it may soon become a necessity.

  2. Tim

    I’ve always felt that every student should have a class in the fundamentals of probability and statistics. With all the statistical garbage tossed around in the media these days, we need citizens who at least know enough to question the claims made by the people juggling the numbers.

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