This is a guest post from Joshua Foster, one of my speech students this past year. He originally presented this as a speech and I really liked what he had to say and asked him to turn it into a blog post. Enjoy!
In an age where technology can be found everywhere, it is not hard to find useful applications of technological advances. However, not all of these changes are for the better. Integration of calculators into classroom settings has been one major challenge facing the world, and more directly, the United States. When is the proper time to introduce children to calculators?
The answer can be derived easier through the use of an analogy.
When a child is taught to walk, he is placed on his feet and shown how to take his first steps. Then, given that there are not any disabilities, he continues practicing until he has both mastered walking and is able to extend it into running. It is not until much later that he is given a tool to make mobility easier. These tools come in the form of bikes and cars. If the child were to be given a car before he could walk, it would severely limit both his mobility and his access to various locations, since he would only be able to travel main roads.
Similarly, a student is taught first to count. When he is able to count fluently he then learns to add and subtract these numbers. These basics must be drilled, and each set of problems memorized before he can progress further.
Once adding and subtracting have been mastered, he can be taught sequences of adding called multiplication and then, inversely, division. Once multiplication and division are mastered, the child is given a tool to enhance their capability and make the processes easier and faster. Unless these fundamentals are taught in order and in proper depth, though, the child will be severely impaired when trying to apply these basics to more advanced thinking and problem solving.
David Gelernter (see footnote for article referenced) quotes the principal from a school in Kentucky, saying “Drilling addition and subtraction in an age of calculators is a waste of time”. This school’s scores on computation tests have subsequently dropped ten percent.
Gelernter then continues to quote a Japanese professor “Calculators are not used in elementary or junior high school because the primary emphasis is on helping students develop their mental abilities.” Is it purely coincidental then that Japan’s 4th and 8th grade test scores are among the highest in the world (Brunette)? The different test results are derived from different teaching styles. Japanese students master fundamentals and then are taught to apply them in various forms, whereas American students are given a calculator and expected to figure out application themselves.
If this is the case, then is it strategic to ban usage of calculators from school in general? According to Waylon Brunette, “Calculators should only be allowed on a regular basis in elementary schools after the student has mastered the basics”.
Elementary school might still be early for students to use calculators, however. Calculators may serve better if they are only used during situations requiring integration of the basics in a more advanced scenario. If a student is in the middle of a complex algebra problem and finds himself needing to accomplish long division, he would have to break his thought process, complete the calculation, and then attempt to regain his thought-process. This is where a calculator can reach its full potential. It allows a student to apply a concept he has already mastered into a problem much faster and more precise than he could have originally. This enables the student to progress further and faster than without the calculator.
Since calculators are a very useful tool in advanced math, why is it that they are so harmful when learning the basics? Brunette explains this phenomena in great detail: “Students become dependent on their calculators and have difficulty doing math problems when they don’t have a calculator available… students leave as much as work as possible for the calculator… skills learned through practice in the lower grades are no longer being carried through by the student into college level math. This makes math more challenging for students later on because they do not possess the natural intuition and skills needed to approach a hard symbolic problem.”
These hard symbolic problems require more than the answers to addition or multiplication problems. They require an understanding of the basics and an ability to integrate those basics into more complex scenarios. It would be equivalent to showing a child a video of a virtuoso pianist, and then expecting that child to be able to play the same piece the same way. This expectation is completely unrealistic and embarrassing. In order to succeed at anything, whether mathematics or the piano, one must first understand the basics and drill them.
Every student is different, and from these differences a difficulty in finding teaching patterns arises. There is no way to create a course that is perfect for every student that will take it. Calculators have served to inflame this problem further. With the integration of calculators into grade schools to replace the basics, the teacher has not only attempted to bring every student’s mathematical thinking and competency in the class to the same level, but also that of every student in every grade using calculators.
If this trend is allowed to continue, it could bring about disastrous results as the next generations grow older, mentally unprepared.
Waylon Brunette’s article “Computers in Education”
Gelernter, David. “Computers Cannot Teach Children Basic Skills.” in The Bedford Guide for College Writers. Ed. X. J. Kennedy, Dorothy M. Kennedy, and Marcia F. Muth.