Computers and Calculators in Schools

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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. Duncan Miller says:

    I wouldn’t hold it against our generation (generation Y) as I know for a fact that the older generations have just as much trouble as we do with simple mathematics. I by no means think of myself to be a mathematician (in fact I hardly got by my first year university linear algebra course last semester) though I often find myself having to do the mental calculations for business, economics, and even my math professors. With that said I’ve never seen one of them have trouble with a simple 6.5×10, though I have watched them strain over equations in which they simply have to divide by fractions or easy decimals when I have had the answer figured out almost instantly.

    I agree heavily with the first comment posted regarding the use of calculators being the issue rather than the presence of them as I know a large number of kids who can easily out calculate their elders who have not had the priveledge of growing up in a culture with such a high level of computing convenience.

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  2. clive moss says:

    Arithmetic is the mechanical ability to add, subtract, multiply and divide taught and learned in the lower grades. Mathematics is abstract and conceptual and studied at higher grades. Remembering facts about numbers (9×6=54, or whatever) is not the same as understanding how to do algebra, or reason geometrically.
    The confusion between the two lead to the disastrous “New Math”.
    Mathematicians are sometimes arithmetically challenged. By calling the memory tricks of the the multiplication table mathematics we are potentially scaring off students from a mathematics career.

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  3. Chris says:

    I can one-up your anecdote…as a grad student teaching intro statistics, I had a nursing student come in for help, and in front of me, she actually multiplied a number rather large number by one on her calculator. I will never forget that as long as I live. Calculators can be a blessing…and a curse.

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  4. Anon says:

    I think this is somewhat inevitable today due to the level of our knowledge. These types of situations are probably MORE likely to happen among the “highly” educated (engineers, computer programmers, etc.). When we deal with the complex it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the basics as those tasks tend to be taken up by other people or automated by technology.

    Its true what they say about how you lose what you don’t use. I aced all my advanced math courses in university but could not remember how to do long division. Now I didn’t forget the concept of what division was, just the method to do it on paper. This on its own to me is not an indicator of over reliance on technology. While it is acceptable to forget say the long division method or formulas, it is unacceptable if an individual forgets the concept or idea so much that even when brought up it seems alien to them. The unfortunate fact of having an education system which spans an entire country the size of America or Canada (where I was educated) is that good teaching cannot be standardized, and comparability between a student on the west coast and one on the east coast is more important in the eyes of policy makers and politicians (who decide how and where funding goes). A standardized curriculum, standardized teaching methods, standardized testing requirements are all detrimental to individual students but the decision makers are unwilling or unable to do anything about it.

    Education reform is something which everyone knows is needed, but no one seems to have a concrete plan which can feasibly work. Ultimately it is up to the individual (both student and their parents) to make sure they’re on the right track. That’s not to say the system does not have responsibility, just that they should not bear the sole responsibility.

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