Are calculators really a bad thing for students? Think again

By | October 24, 2019

Calculators in schools have been for a long time vilified as devices that make children complacent and lazy, substituting the thinking process through mindless button-pushing.

In fact, the Government banned the usage of calculators in official maths tests in 2014 for 11-year-olds in England. Many people believed that if calculators were introduced too early to students then kids could develop a habit of just reaching for a calculator and eventually becoming too reliant on them. Calculators, in fact, became the scapegoat for low results and perceived low numeracy standards.

Even the national curriculum suggests that calculators should be introduced towards the end of Key Stage 2, and only if students have achieved a proper understanding of the basic concepts and are articulate in written and mental arithmetic.

However, does, in fact, touching calculator buttons from an early age stop kids thinking? Are they truly bad for the fundamentals of mental arithmetic? We allow students to use other computers from an early age while calculators seem to get a raw deal.

Evidence from several studies has demonstrated that calculators may have a positive impact and are very effective teaching and learning resources.

What does the evidence say?

Rather than calculators being harmful to students’ learning process, there is a significant amount of evidence that proves that the usage of calculators may benefit students’ learning processes. Their utilization brings a rich mathematical environment for kids to explore and helps with the development of number sense. Students can develop deep conceptual understanding and improve mental and written skills.

According to recent reports, far from harming mathematical skills, calculators can actually help and they should not be spurned. It’s now time to take them out of our cupboard and start using calculators and making them part of a ‘calculator aware’ approach.

The report suggests that these devices need to be ‘integrated into the teaching of mental calculation approaches’ with the goal of enabling students to self-regulate their usage.

The evidence suggests that these tools can help students become even better at operation development and problem-solving and can improve attitudes towards mathematics.

It’s frequently stated that calculators can actually harm children’s arithmetic skills. However, they can actually boost students’ understanding of mathematics – but that to do this, teachers need to ensure they are utilized in a thoughtful way, especially with young students.

The research found that, in general, children who had used calculators systematically throughout the lower levels of the school had a better understanding of arithmetic.

It’s not the calculator, it’s how you are using it

As with any approach, it obviously matters how teachers and students use calculators and the choice to actually use a calculator needs to be the kid’s, not ours.

Thinking about when and why to use these devices is a vital skill that teachers may build into lessons so that students make smart decisions when it comes to choosing an adequate method. Free calculator use can hence aid with mathematical thinking strategies.

The evidence also suggests that in basic school the usage of a calculator is beneficial when kids are taught to use calculators alongside some other methods. They are particularly useful for aiding students to test their ideas.

It makes sense

Calculators have a role to play in schools — they are not a simple substitute for thinking, and are a truly useful tool for learning when used properly.

There are so many theories about the way calculators can harm the development of the basic concepts but research shows that the reverse could be true and that calculators may promote fundamental knowledge. They are able to promote higher-order thinking as well as reasoning needed for problem-solving and their use can boost understanding of arithmetic operations.

Calculators promote math exploration as well as experimentation and can even enhance understanding of concepts and mathematical capability. Calculators also relieve kids of unwieldy computation since they are reliable, allowing them to focus on more meaningful tasks and activities.

When properly used, calculators can profoundly change the maths curriculum as well as the nature of math teaching because they are able to augment rather than replace mental methods and serve as a useful tool for problem-solving and developing conceptual understanding. Calculators are smart and versatile tools that can help students construct their own meanings.

In brief…

There is no evidence that shows that using a calculator in school leads to poorer performance, while there is plenty of research that says calculators can do good.

Isn’t it about time that we use our maths calculator to its full potential, use it frequently and restore its status as a friend and not a foe? Calculators are safe, versatile and really do help students with maths.

These devices are valuable tools and should be just as available for kids to use in schools as other tools like rulers or hundred squares.