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Math Wars!! Episode 1 – The Calculator Debate

ROCKWALL/HEATH, TX (Nov. 18, 2014) Believe it or not, if you Google the term “Math Wars” today you will find over 32,000,000 hits in under 30 seconds. How can it be that something seemingly so matter- of-fact as math can be involved in a war? It is not the “what” of math that creates so much controversy, but the “how.” For as long as I can remember there have been competing theories about the right way to teach children math, or even if children should have to know how to do basic math at all. Let me explain.

In January of 1970, the first day back at college after Christmas Break, my Educational Philosophy professor stunned everyone by saying with great excitement, “Children of the future will not have to bother learning how to add, subtract, multiply or divide!” He had recently heard about a wonderful new technology that would allow everyone to have a handheld device that could do those boring and repetitive tasks for them. Most of my friends in the class were stunned, not only that such a thing could be possible, but that our professor seemed to think it was a great thing.

To some extent my professor was right. Not only did such a product come along, but it has become a ubiquitous product that everyone now owns and is even found in their phone. But was it a good thing? As in all things in life, there are trade –offs. The calculator makes higher math much easier and less time consuming for Algebra and Geometry students, but the problem is that unused skills are gradually lost. We have even had instructor applicants who perform well in their university math classes actually fail our applicant test. They have forgotten how to do the basics because they rely on their trusty TI84 to do all the number crunching.

So, how should we approach calculator use with our children? Students need to be able to keep up with everyone else in their Algebra class, but we don’t want them to become arithmetically illiterate (sometimes referred to as innumerate). First, the calculator is not our enemy; in fact, it is a great blessing that our children can become competent in higher math without the drudgery of doing every step themselves. However, the calculator can become a crutch that causes a loss of basic math skills. When parents ask us about calculator use, we encourage them to allow calculator use only after their child no longer needs one. Allowing younger children to use calculators does them no service; in fact, it can make their progress in math more difficult.

As in most things, there are exceptions. Children who need accommodations in school should be allowed to use them there. But even these children should be encouraged to become comfortable with math, without a calculator, when at home and not working on their homework.

Calculators don’t have to be avoided; however, they should be used with caution with young mathematicians. A strong Number Sense is a skill that will benefit children throughout their lives, whether or not they ever have an occupation that requires higher math skills. This Number Sense comes with a solid understanding of how numbers work, not how calculators work.

By Blue Ribbon News guest columnists Bob and Becky Barnes with Mathnasium Learning Center in Rockwall. Contact them at rockwall-heath@mathnasium.com.

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