Last month I spent some time in a kindergarten class, where a boy sighed to me: “If I was home I could be playing video games.” Since then, I’ve also spent a few days at our local public high school. I am astonished at the number of electronic devices students carry and somewhat more astonished at how restricted their use is. School policy is to take away and not return any electronic devices. I understand you don’t want someone text-messaging during an exam, among many other possible subversive uses. But it made me think about the history of and controversy over calculators — electronic devices that are allowed and occasionally even provided in school.
Handheld student calculators started appearing in the mid-eighties. By 1989, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) recommended calculators — of age-appropriate capacity — for all students, grades K-12. Within ten years, numerous research studies had shown the use of calculators actually increases conceptual understanding of mathematics. Now even after two decades, many parents and some teachers worry not only about concept development but also about computation skills.
One way calculators help with concept development is by creating cognitive dissonance — providing evidence that doesn’t fit with what one believes. For example, students learning fractions strengthen their understanding when they learn to reconcile their answers with the correct ones the calculator gives. An easier to imagine example: in second grade my daughter was taught to use a numberline to subtract, but her answers were consistently one too low. The teacher didn’t realize she simply didn’t know where to stop. If she had been given real objects to take away, or a calculator to check her numberline answers, most likely she would have realized on her own what she was doing wrong.
Another great way to show and strengthen a student’s number sense and computational skills is by having the student use a “broken” calculator that forces him or her to find different work-arounds to solve problems. Explore Teachscape’s ingenious Broken Calculator by clicking on its link in this NCTM article.
More research and technology reviews are also available through Drexel University’s Math Forum. I hope that little kindergartner doesn’t spend all thirteen of his school years without the complex stimulation technology adds to learning. If you are still skeptical after browsing the above free research, you might enjoy reading The New Brain or Everything Bad is Good for You. Or you might want to comment on this post. After all, a few of the Drexel articles argue against calculators.