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. Robin Jeffries says:

    This behavior has nothing to do with computers. Maybe someday we will have universal numeracy, but I gave up on that dream 40 years ago on a visit to Japan. At that time most (all?) Japanese store clerks used abaci to tally up purchases. They were lightning fast on them, and initially I was very impressed. But we had several instances where it was clear that they had no understanding of the numbers they were handling. One example was that we went into a small convenience store to buy film. The film was something like 395 yen per roll and we got 5 rolls. My husband handed them 2000 yen and expected to get some small change back (I’m sure he hadn’t done the math to know what to expect — just “small change”). The clerk pantomimed that we owed her more money. Given the language barrier, it took us a long time to convince her to recalculate the number (the abacus is never wrong, we learned repeatedly), and give us our change.

    You are beginning to sound like those folks who decried how written books would cause memorization to fall into disrepute. I think we have managed to survive as a society with kids and adults who haven’t memorized anything more important than an advertising jingle or a lady gaga song.

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  2. Emily says:

    It’s a popular human pastime to declare that technology is ruining everything. I read an essay in advanced composition that complained telegrams were destroying the English language. One of the transcendentalists–maybe Emerson–swore rushing around in trains going 35 miles per hour would make everyone forget about nature. It’s just not true, and technology marches on.

    Just like every new tech tool, calculators and computers have their pros and cons. But I think it’s silly to assume that critical thinking skills are being destroyed in all students because of a single incident with a person who probably reached for the calculator without even thinking.

    After my AP Calculus class I could look at almost any graphed function and write out the equation for it. There is no way I could have learned that if I hadn’t been able to practice by comparing graphs instantly on my calculator (and I’m not a “math person”–I’m a Spanish major). There will always people who will use technology blindly, but they would have been doing the same thing 50, 100, or 1000 years ago. The tools aren’t the problem. Knowing how to use them effectively is.

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  3. Andy in NC says:

    did anybody notice that the article was of 15 years ago?

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  4. crquack says:

    Surely Sanjay’s point was not that computers or calculators are bad but that they are bad *if used to replace good teachers* in classrooms.

    I do not think his example is all that atypical. Try giving a store clerk exact change and watch him struggle to work out how much a nickel, two dimes and a quarter amount to.

    I for one do not believe that “creative thinking” is likely to be productive in presence of ignorance of basics.

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  5. Shaun says:

    you sound curmudgeonly, sanjay. I am 29 and am great at doing arithmetic in my head and visuallizing functions, but i came up with a graphing calculator and computers. You can’t let your experience with one moron 13 years ago color your perception of an entire generation.

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  6. gpo says:

    I am definitely in the camp that students should not use calculators in school until around the 10th grade. Kids have to know certain math facts in their head. Using the calculator just slows the memorization of those facts.

    As I see my daughter progress through school I get disgusted in the ways they teach math these days.

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  7. Lance says:

    Ah, L fighting K. If these were machinists complaining about automation technologies being favored as opposed to additional hours/workers/other benefits, we’d call them Luddites. But, since they’re teachers, they are merely concerned about the educational prospects of the beleaguered student.

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  8. HartmanMath says:

    As a junior high Algebra teacher I agree 100%. I only use calculators for multiplying decimals or more complicated tasks such as factoring. My students tend to complain about this policy.

    Calculator use is emphasized by most elementary teachers and the NCTM. For this reason alone I will never join.

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