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News from Mathnasium of Littleton

Calculators: Should You Even Use One?

Jan 14, 2019

The school year has started again, and memories and thoughts of winter break are slowly being replaced by homework assignment and quizzes. As the next chapter and fresh start of math for 2019 begins we thought that we would raise an interesting question that we often get.

Does my child need a calculator for school??

Well it’s a great question, and here we’ve broken down each level of math and whether or not a calculator is a good fit…our answers might surprise you.

Elementary School:

The only calculator elementary students need is the one between their ears. If a child gets frustrated doing math without a calculator, this is a sign to have their fundamental math skills assessed.

The early grades concentrate on arithmetic. In order to develop number sense, mathematical reasoning, and numerical fluency, children should be able to do arithmetic both in their head and on paper. Elementary school children need to practice these mental math skills, and using a calculator robs them of that important repetitive practice. For that reason, Mathnasium recommends that parents not buy a calculator for their elementary school children.

Middle School:

There’s a lot of controversy about students using technology to learn math. Colleges see that students benefit from not using a calculator: more than 50% of research universities, including MIT and Harvard, do not allow calculus students to use any technology on exams.

Math professors who oppose the use of calculators in class acknowledge that students will use technology for math in the “real world;” however, they have noticed that a strong foundation in computational skills improves a student’s mathematical thinking in their higher level math concepts.

Some people will argue otherwise, since most secondary schools students are into algebra or beyond they should be able to focus on that since they “already have learned computation”.

However, mental math is a skill that needs to stay shard. Of all skills learned in school, the ability to calculate numbers in one’s head is one of the most useful in later life. While it’s easy to start relying on calculators when the math homework gets complex, this weakens mental math skills and make understanding advanced math more difficult.

…but what about those fancy scientific and graphing calculators?

A scientific calculator is an important tool in algebra and statistics. A graphing calculator adds a high-resolution screen to plot coordinates and graph functions.

High school math teachers often encourage graphing calculators because they are used for AP Calculus exams, the ACT, and a portion of the SAT (there is math portion of the SAT where calculators are not allowed). Math teachers will tell students which calculator is needed.

Because scientific and graphing calculators still have all the basic operations available, we caution students not to use them for arithmetic. Be aware that you don’t have to buy a calculator in order for a child to access one. Calculators, like the ones found online and included on phones, computers and tablets, are quite tempting for your child.

Whether using a computer or a stand-alone calculator, it’s a good idea to see exactly how your child is using the calculator. If they are using a calculator when they should be doing the math in their head, that might indicate a problem with their basic math skills.

When you should dig deeper: is your child calculator dependent?

Dependence on a calculator may indicate a learning gap. If your child already uses a calculator for basic math operations, an assessment of numerical fluency may be in order. Perhaps your child started using a calculator to do homework faster. This habit may have undermined your child’s math efforts. It often surprises parents who bring their child into our centers for an assessment that, even though their child can do some advanced math, certain basic skills are still missing.

Children who have gotten used to using a calculator may not give them up without protesting. Remind them that the purpose of a math class is not just to prove an ability to answer isolated problems. A math class should teach how to think and analyze complex problems mathematically.

Ultimately, when choosing a calculator you should follow the guidelines of your child’s teacher. Just be aware of the risks and drawbacks of overuse and reliance.