Calculators: Good or Bad?
When calculators were first invented in the 1960’s, they were not considered for use in schools because of their size, appearance, and cost. Eventually, they became sleeker and less expensive and students began using them in and out of the classroom.
The debate about calculator usage in math class has been going on ever since the calculators were first invented. One opinion in the debate states that calculators are good because they allow problems to be completed faster and more accurately. The opposing viewpoint is that calculators become a crutch and students have weak arithmetic skills as a result of having the calculator do the mathematical “heavy lifting.”
So which side is right? Is the calculator your friend or your foe? Let’s start by examining some of the arguments for and against calculator usage:
Reasons to use a calculator
- Allows you to do calculations faster
- Allows you to successfully complete more difficult calculations
- Puts your focus on understanding and solving the problems rather than doing the calculations themselves
- Takes some of the worry and anxiety out of doing problems that involve a lot of calculation
- Makes you feel like you have the best chance to get the right answer
- Gives you an extra boost of confidence when doing more difficult problems
Reasons to avoid using a calculator
- It prevents you from doing the critical thinking necessary to do more complex calculations
- Students who use a calculator are generally weaker at analyzing their answer to make sure it makes sense
- Takes away opportunities for you to reason your way through the problem
- It is easy to just try different operations and see what each answer looks like rather than reasoning through the problem
- May give you a false sense of confidence in your calculation abilities
- In extreme cases, calculator overuse may inhibit your ability to do even basic calculations in your head or on paper
Calculators in the Classroom
Many teachers have procedures concerning calculator use. Some dislike calculators and allow them to be used only when absolutely necessary, while other teachers allow you to use the calculator whenever you like. Calculators can be a useful tool when used appropriately, but it is easy to get into the habit of reaching for one before you even think about what the question is asking. The reason that there is a debate about calculators and their usage is that many students overuse their calculator, which leads them to underuse their brain.
You probably know someone who starts every math problem by reaching for their calculator. This behavior is a problem as the calculator becomes more and more of a crutch. Some students use calculators so much that their first reaction is to use it to simply try to add, subtract, multiply, or divide the numbers given in the problem to see if any of those results make sense as an answer. These students have lost their problem-solving instincts and have weakened their ability to judge the correctness of an answer because they do not think through the problem enough to determine what type of answer to expect.
Use Calculators in Moderation
The key to calculator use is balance. Calculators can be a helpful and effective aid as you tackle problems that require more computation. Before reaching for a calculator, put some thought into the problem. If it is a word problem, consider drawing a diagram or making a chart to help your brain organize the information. Once you have done all this and understand what the problem is asking, use this information to determine whether or not to use a calculator.
Most problems can be done without using a calculator, but its use is justified whenever it will save you the time of doing problems that you are sure you can do. Pick up the calculator to save yourself time on simple tasks like adding or multiplying large numbers groups of numbers. Avoid its use when the focus of the lesson involves practicing a new computation skill such as adding, subtracting, multiplying, or dividing with larger numbers. For example, if you are just learning how to add three digit numbers, you should work the problems out by hand. Using a calculator becomes an appropriate choice later in your math career when you are doing an Algebra problem that involves adding a number of three digit numbers.
The bottom line
Calculators can be a great tool when used appropriately. Just be careful and make sure that you keep the responsibility of the “thinking” to yourself. Calculators are good at computation but cannot be counted on to do any of the actual “thinking” required to do a mathematics problem.