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Calculators in the Classroom: Use or Abuse?

Jan 07, 2014 10:14AM ● Published by Anonymous

Sponsored by Mathnasium of Southlake

By Meredith Jones, Center Director Mathnasium of Southlake

Many of us have fond memories of our elementary and middle school classrooms.  There were colorful posters on the walls, chalk dust on the floor and large, wooden desks with pencil marks from years of students passing through.  However, the one thing many of us do not remember in the classrooms is a calculator. 

Within the past 15 years, calculator usage has become much more common in the elementary and middle school classrooms.  While this technology can be an effective tool for teaching problem-solving skills and exploring patterns, it can also be a hindrance to a student’s basic fluency skills. Many students are becoming 100% dependent on a calculator for their addition, subtraction, multiplication and division problems.  Their reasoning behind using the calculator is that traditional pencil and paper is too hard, or it takes too long.  However, the main problem with this is that their mental math and number sense skills tend to diminish more quickly than they develop.  For instance, the concept of subtraction, such as 10,000 – 2,798 is first introduced in second grade.  It is then practiced in third grade, and mastered in fourth grade.  Most people stop at that point and think that the student will magically remember how to subtract and borrow for the rest of their life, when in reality, it is expected that the student reinforce this concept all the way through eighth grade.  After a few months without practice, the “mastered” skill is no longer retained.

I have many middle-school students come to Mathnasium that have completely forgotten how to subtract using pencil and paper, or by using an even better tool – their minds.  My students are shocked to learn that they are not allowed to use a calculator on most work at Mathnasium, and that they will learn to understand numbers by developing mental math skills that will stick with them for the rest of their lives.  Once these students are able to understand numbers without simply plugging them into a calculator, they are able to know if their answers to problems are reasonable and make sense. Students’ future success in school and college is at risk if they fail to develop such skills.

“Much to our surprise, we must conclude that there is a (negative) connection between our college mathematics grades at Johns Hopkins University and heavy calculator usage in K-12. Calculators clearly have a place in the classroom but we suspect that they are sometimes misused,” according to a study from Johns Hopkins University professors W. Stephen Wilson and Daniel Naiman.

Calculators do have their place in the classroom, but they are definitely not a substitute for developing a student’s ability to analyze a problem; compute answers and decide if their answer is reasonable.  Drop by Mathnasium of Southlake to learn more about how we teach math in a way that makes sense and can set up your student for success. 

For more information on Mathnasium and our curriculum, please visit our website at Mathnasium of Southlake, call (817) 421-1900 or drop by the center at 1251 E. Southlake Blvd., Suite 305 and see how we make learning fun.

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