The Best of Creative Computing Volume 2 (published 1977)

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Calculators in the Classroom (Pros and cons of calculators in the classroom)
by Deedee Pendleton

graphic of page

Calculators in the Classroom by Deedee Pendleton

Pro: Calculators make tedious math fun, fast and accurate, educators and
students agree. When used for creative problem solving, motivation in students
seems spontaneous.

Con: Mechanization of fundamental classroom skills may leave kids unable to do
simple math on paper. The cost
for electricity or batteries may make operating the device daily too expensive.

Conrad, a Washington, D.C., second grader, is 1 billion, 296 million seconds old
right . . . now. Or, if you prefer, seven years, three months and five days. If
you ask him how he knows, he'll tell you he figured it out on his calculator. If
that sounds a little unsettling, relax. Conrad is getting a first-hand lesson in
using his father's $40 electronic hand calculator at school. And although some
parents are complaining the basics of education are being undermined by
machines, the kids seem to love it.

Pocket math, as it's called, has been assaulted on all sides, but both the
manufacturers of electronic hand calculators and progressive educators are
anxious to see one in every classroom, if not one at every desk. Some first
graders are already doing basic addition with calculators the minute their
teachers feel they understand the principles, and high-school and college
students are buying calculators as if they were radios.

Some calculators cost as little as $20, or about the same as some textbooks, and
instructors say they could
become required equipment in advanced math classes. The pocket-sized units are
already replacing textbooks
in elementary schools, and teachers are hoping that what once seemed to children
a tedious labor may, through
the calculator, become fun.

Opponents of calculators say that kids won't know how to count if their
calculator batteries ever go dead, just as TV-oriented students no longer seem
to know the basics of grammar and spelling. The device, critics contend, will
make pencil-and-paper math obsolete.

But instructors who are using them take the opposite stand. They say that
calculators stretch the student's interest, allow for more relevant kinds of
problems (how far is it to the moon?) and increase motivation. Because of their
speed and accuracy, calculators lend themselves to complicated problems
previously avoided by gradeschool teachers.

"One of the important uses of hand calculators is to enable children to solve
more interesting problems, and to work out large divisions which would otherwise
discourage them," says George Springer, an Indiana University mathematics
instructor. Thus, oversimplified problem solving becomes unnecessary.

Teaching the basics before letting the child experiment with the calculator,
many arithmetic teachers say, is
essential for the machine's best use. "The hand-held calculator can be a very
valuable tool, but only to an operator who understands the basic ideas, concepts
and meanings behind the instantaneously generated answers it provides," says
Frank S. Hawthorne of the New York State Education Department. Unlike the
abacus, a calculator provides little or no help in learning computational

Calculators will help children adjust more readily to a technological world,
Springer says, and will make it easier for them to understand decimals, on which
the metric system is based.

There is some opposition to the calculator in the classroom, admits Douglas
Lapp, a Fairfax County (Va.)
science curriculum specialist, but he says it isn't always valid. "Americans are
particularly prone to think technology will offer easy solutions to everything,
when in fact it simply solves existing problems, but does nothing automatically.

"The fundamental problem in math education still is that kids too often don't
know the meaning of mathematical education and won't learn any more than they
did by rote memorization," Lapp says. "We need to first give
them concrete specific solutions as physical models for multiplication, which
they can later transfer to concepts." Jill Horlick, an elementaryschool math
specialist, agrees. "The calculator doesn't think for you; it doesn't have a
brain." She says that once her students can understand the theory of
multiplication, they can adapt their knowledge to their imaginations. "Kids
normally think about the universe; they love to manipulate large numbers because
it makes them feel important. Why stop [the child] from thinking beyond those
numbers just because he doesn't have the tools yet?"

New mathematical principles adapted for the calculator classroom are inevitable,
Horlick maintains. More emphasis is placed on estimation, or on learning to
judge which of the answers the calculator gives is reasonable. In addition,
decimal placement becomes much more understandable, she says, because the
calculator is able to provide answers of 6 to 12 digits, far beyond a young
child's ability to calculate on paper. Children too often become bogged down in
the complexity of a problem on paper, "and lose sight of the problem they are
trying to solve," while the calculator eliminates the long rows of numbers
usually associated with four-digit multiplication problems.

Douglas Grouws, a University of Missouri mathematics education instructor, holds
that educators "must pay careful attention with regard to how we use
[calculators] in the class

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