Kids and Calculators

Yesterday as Garbanzo was watching the video of Clifford Stoll giving a speech on education and technology (it’s up on his blog – take a watch if you have 18 minutes), a part of his speech made me laugh.  I didn’t laugh because it was funny, but because here was this brilliant man mentioning how much he believes computers should be taken out of the classroom.

And, I agree with him.  And, can I throw in the mix that so should calculators?

I won’t pretend I understand Stoll’s reasoning because I haven’t read his book, and the video didn’t go too far into it.  But here is my reasoning:

Math is a process – and kids are no longer learning the process.

I have been roped into tutoring kids in advanced Algebra classes off and on over the last 15 years, and the common issues they are having are two fold.  Their teachers are no longer teaching the process – and they are allowed to be highly reliant on their calculators to tell them the answer.

What you end up with are very smart kids who can’t get the right answer if their lives depended on it.  They rely heavily on the calculator for telling them the right answer, but they don’t know the process, so they can’t get the right answer.  Ahh….the great irony of the calculator….

Let me give you an example.  Two girls I tutored at different times who went to different high schools had the same issue.  There is a phrase they used to teach kids so they could remember the order of operation – or what you do first, second, etc in a math problem with multiple things happening.  My Dear Aunt Sally – or Multiply, Divide, Add, then Subtract.  When you get older, it changes to Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally – or Parenthesis, Exponentials, Multiply, Divide, Add, then Subtract.

When these girls were presented with this:  2(5+6), for example, the would get 16 not 22.  Why? Because when you put that into a calculator, you should do what is in the parenthesis first, then multiply by 2.  They would multiply 2×5 then add 6; simply doing it from left to right.  Both could not figure out why they couldn’t get the right answer.  They were missing a basic math strategy for problem solving; a concept that is ever present throughout math classes. Heck, I used it in Linear Algebra my senior years of college.

So, I guess that is why I don’t disagree about computers.  While having the paper nicely typed up and printed off of the computer makes it easier to read, is the point of the paper how neat it is or the content of the paper?  It should be the latter.  And, a great example is something Garbanzo is continually faced with – plagiarism.   Just last Thursday, I spent time “googling” key phrases from some of these kids papers hoping not to find the source.  (But each time finding the source – and pretty quickly.)  While you could run into the same problem with books, I think the fact the source is pretty much known by the teachers and the student helps keep some honesty.  Also, since they are shared resources, the idea of taking notes and returning the book for others to use helps them get into the habit of reorganizing their ideas.  Right now, plagiarism is a mere cut and copy away.  At least if they were copying it by hand, there is a chance they would give up before copying it all word-for-word.

Let me put it another way  –  if you were learning to build a house, you would learn about how to put up the walls in what order, what is done first, what is done last, and how to use the tools.  But, simply learning the tools wouldn’t mean you could build a house.  No, you still need to learn the overarching concepts. The tools are simply tools to aid in the house building.  They do not ever replace the knowledge of house building.  Same thing goes in the classroom – you cannot replace the process and concepts of math or writing or anything with calculators or computers.  They are only a tool – not a replacement for the knowledge.

This is why my kids are not allowed to use calculators when working on math problems.  They are not always on the computer – heck they have to write out any papers or speeches they have had to make for school.  We type them up after they are done.  Oh, and I do tell all of their teachers this philosophy I have (and I’m sure Garbanzo apologies to them afterwards in an attempt to keep a good working relationship).  It’s kind of like my philosophy on homework, but that’s another post….

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Hubman says:

    You mean kids don’t know PEMDAS? Mine will, even if I have to teach them myself!

    Good for you, banning calculators. We just might have to follow your example…

  2. Dana says:

    In middle school, the kids are not allowed to use calculators – not on homework – not on tests. Long division, multiplication, algebra (good old FOIL) are all done long-hand with work shown. I am THRILLED!

  3. Emmy says:

    I encourage all parents to ban the calculator. And teach your kids the “old school” math tricks. When Garbanzo taught math, he used to teach them – even though they weren’t part of the curriculum.

    Dana – I’m glad to hear your son’s school doesn’t allow them. The new math curriculum in our district has sections for calculator work starting as early as 2nd grade. I’m evil – I make my first born do it by hand.

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