Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Calculators in the Classroom

In my opinion, and based on my experience, calculators have their place in classrooms for any age. However, their appropriate use, like any other valuable skill or piece of technology, must be taught. A calculator is a tool, not a crutch – valuable for crunching numbers and relieving students of the mindless drudgery of endless pencil-and-paper calculations on topics which they already understand; but it should never be a substitute for mental acuity. An older student studying right triangle trigonometry who uses his calculator to find the value of (15 sin 30°) ÷ (25 cos 73°) is using the tool appropriately, whereas the student who uses it to find the product of 57 x 11 is simply being lazy.

The use of calculators, regardless of age level, needs to be accompanied by constant practice in estimating (or what I like to call “guesstimating”.) Estimation is amongst the most important – and too often neglected – math skills in a school’s curriculum. Math students need daily practice and encouragement to develop these skills if they are not to develop into students to whom “the right answer” is paramount. Too many students rely upon their calculators to give them “the right answer,” even when they have given their calculators the wrong input. “Garbage in, garbage out” should be a catch phrase in every math classroom, and students should be encouraged (required?) to come up with an estimate before any calculation. In addition, students should always ask themselves if what is in their calculator’s display makes sense!

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