Fractions Times Tables Decimals

Calculators on Elementary Grades: Is it Alright?

Over the last few years I’ve experienced first hand the heated clash of opinions about whether children on elementary grade should be able to use calculators for their math classes. I first experienced the arguing positions on this topic while working at an English school in Los Angeles and saw how some of the teaching staff argued that using calculators helped children to concentrate on learning and applying the mathematical concepts rather than spending all their time on tedious calculations.

It’s been quite a while since the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics recommended that long divisions and other “tedious pencil-and-paper computations” be given less attention in schools and for calculators to be available to students at all times. However many people are against using calculators, especially for lower level math teaching. They argue that using calculators makes children avoid using basic facts and prevents students from personally discovering and understanding the underlying mathematical concepts. Calculators, according to its detractors, promote just randomly trying different operations without understanding what they are really doing.

The Search for a Balance

Learning math does much more for the children than teaching them abstract concepts. It helps train and discipline the mind and promote logical reasoning.

Things to keep in mind

  • Calculators are merely a tool: So is the human mind, pencil and papers. Children should use the calculator when its more appropriate to do so.
  • Children should learn to estimate the result prior to using the calculator to easily check if the answer is even reasonable (due to possible entry errors.)
  • Calculators should not be used for randomly trying operations: In reality it’s nigh impossible to arrive at a result without knowing the principles behind the operations so trying to do so it’s a pointless exercise.

Calculators are neither the herald of an age of simple mathematics nor the devil advocate that some teachers make it to be. They are simply tools (widely used in our society) that can make solving some operations much faster and the results much more reliable. I believe children should learn the basic facts that will allow them to mental calculations and master long divisions on paper before jumping to use the calculator. Mathematics is a field where all knowledge is built on previously learned and established facts. Therefore, there is no way to circumvent the teaching and application of the basic concepts in order to be able to understand the more complicated ones.

Like going to learn French in Toronto, using calculators can be seen as using the best tool to aid and improve the efforts of kids learning abstract mathematical concepts. Like learning French abroad, it is only an aid or tool and should not be seen as a replacement for the basic skills that will allow kids to understand the underlying concepts behind the operations they are producing in their calculators. Once these concepts are understood (in theory and in practice) then calculators can help kids to focus on other more abstract concepts without worrying about pen and paper calculations.