Computers and Calculators in Schools

Photo: iStockphoto

Neal Koblitz, professor of mathematics at the University of Washington, begins his critique of computers in K-13 mathematics education as follows:

In Peru, as in many Third World countries, the system of public education is in crisis. Teachers’ pay — traditionally low — is falling rapidly because of inflation. The schools are dilapidated, and there is no money for basic supplies. …

Yet President Fujimori has said that he wants to get computers into the schools as soon as possible. The government’s priority is to “modernize” the economy and the educational system, and computerized learning is supposedly one way to do this.

Change Peru to New York City, and Fujimori to the city’s Department of Education, and we reproduce the current news of New York City’s half-a-billion-dollars-and-change effort to shove more technology into the classroom while eliminating 6,100 teaching positions (4,600 of those through layoffs).

In my last entry, I criticized high-stakes tests as the most damaging item in public education. But miseducation is a very competitive field, and I had momentarily forgotten about calculators and computers (whose baleful effects extend to the private schools). It’s hard to think of a better way to ensure that students not be able to reason or think for themselves.

Here is a small illustration of the problem. As I was finishing graduate school, I was helping to pack up the computer lab and ship it across the country. I went down to the IT desk and asked the price of one DAT tape for backing up all the files. I was told $6.50. Then I realized that we would need several, so I asked the price of the box of 10. The sales clerk whipped out his calculator and fiercely punched away. Perhaps he was figuring the different-in-every-county California sales tax — was it 7.25 percent or maybe 8.375 percent? Just as I had thought up that explanation, he announced the results of all the calculation: “That’ll be sixty-five dollars.”

It happened almost 13 years ago, and I remember it as if it were yesterday. The situation today is even worse thanks to graphing calculators, which have done for students’ understanding of algebra and functions what the regular calculators have done to their understanding of the number system.


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  1. YX says:

    I wouldn’t think computer itself is the problem, is how to use it. Also it makes economic sense since computer / calculator is more efficient at handling calculation and humans are better at logic and reasoning.

    I also not sure the guy at the IT desk had the benefit of calculator (certainly not computer) during his school, which suggests that some people will be ignorant no matter what tools school choose to give or not give them, as long as themselves chose so.

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  2. karen says:

    Embarrassingly, after gradating from undergrad and gleaning insights from complex statistical operations performed by fancy software, I had to re-learn my times tables for the GMAT.

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  3. jan says:

    That is a fair point, that people should be able to do basic math without the aid of technology. But for someone like me, a graphing calculator was what enabled me to pass the classes I needed to pass in order to get into medical school. To put it simply, numbers and I don’t get along–we never have, and as hard as I try, abstract reasoning with numbers just doesn’t make sense to me. Now, when we attach numbers to reality (as in 10 DAT tapes at $6.50 apiece), I function perfectly well. I calculate sale prices in stores and tip amounts in restaurants in my head, usually faster than my husband (who had sailed through two college calculus courses before his senior year of high school). But in trigonometry and calculus, at least the way they were taught in my classes, there was no reality to attach to the numbers–it was entirely abstract reasoning. Which meant that, for years, I was doing the mental equivalent of wading through hip-deep mud, trying to understand what in the world these numbers were doing. My graphing calculator at least helped me get the answers so that I could keep up with the pace of the class, pass the required standardized exams, and pass my classes. The way that our education system is structured, with a heavy emphasis on “get X amount of content covered” rather than “make sure things making sense”, and with the number of students at all ability levels and with all learning styles, sometimes there simply isn’t a way for a student to get through without the crutch of a graphing calculator. And, in my mind, that’s okay.

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  4. Dan Auns says:

    (Link to: TEDTalk, Conrad Wolfram)

    I think you should give this a watch, and possibly rethink your take.

    Computers, and calculators in classrooms is not the problem Sanjoy. Proper learning the application of mathematics in everyday life, is.

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    • Michael says:

      I was thinking of posting the exact same thing. We don’t teach high schoolers to write by copying text out of a dictionary or teach art students to paint by tracing. Why do the same thing with math? My math book in high school had all the answers in the back, to double check you work. When does that ever happen in life?

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  5. Diego Venancio says:

    Is this post just this? An old men’s cry and a simple example? Where’s the data to support the theory? At least a larger example that can represent how education have worsened? Not even the example proves anything.

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  6. Jeff says:

    At my University, we are not allowed to use calculators in any of the core math classes. From Calculus 1 to Differential Equations, I didn’t use my TI-89 a single time. As much of a pain as it was, I think it really forced me to learn the concepts and understand mathematical relationships.

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  7. Eric M. Jones says:

    Anything that reduces drudgery is a great idea. So much that passes for education is simply rote effort and pointless memorization. Stalagmite…Stalactite…give me a break. There are only three classes of ____small, medium and BIG. And my math lesson on fractions–There ARE no fractions. It’s easy.

    Bring on the calculators.

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  8. Donnie says:

    Isn’t this the ultimate in specialization? Not everyone needs to know how to grow their own food anymore. We have a small subset of the population using technology to provide food for everyone. Math could be similar. Let the computers do the math, and allow the humans to think creatively. It is what we are both best at.

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