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The Great Calculator Debate

SchoolMart examines both sides of the ever-present classroom debate: Should calculators be used in the teaching of basic mathematical concepts?

The debate continues on whether or not calculators should be used in grade school classrooms. Studies conducted in lower grade levels have indicated the educational benefits of classroom calculator use, but many teachers still avoid using them on a regular basis. Questions often asked include: Are calculators in fact discouraging children from developing an understanding of mathematical concepts? Are calculators ultimately a help or a hindrance?

Calculators have proven themselves to be beneficial tools for elementary and middle school learners. According to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, regular calculator use aids children in improving their math problem solving skills. Surprisingly, however, calculators are not often employed in lower grades, and students are rarely given the opportunity to use them as part of their curriculum.

According to the 2012 U.S. National Survey of Science and Mathematics, despite the fact that almost 60% of elementary math classes have the resources to provide every student with a calculator, only 13% use them once a week or more. In fact, 77% of middle schools have access to calculators for every student, but only 40% incorporate them into the weekly curriculum.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) highly encourages that students of all ages regularly employ the use of calculators. According to the NCTM, teachers should no longer ask why they ought to use calculators in their classrooms. Contrarily, it would be an improvement to focus on taking every opportunity to ask how and when calculators can be employed.

The NCTM conducted a meta-analysis of almost 200 studies that yielded promising results for calculator-based math education. The results demonstrated that if calculators are used as teaching tools instead of simple computing aids, they have been proven to contribute to the improvement of student conceptual competence. Calculators also encourage the use of reasoning skills, stimulate higher-order thinking, and aid in the teaching of mathematical operations.

These findings, however, come with several caveats. According to the Brookings Institution, several studies have yielded mixed results. One study even found evidence that 4th graders’ computational skill acquisition was hindered by the classroom use of calculators. In addition, children living in countries that have limited the use of calculators in school continue to excel on standardized tests.

SchoolMart believes that proponents of calculator-friendly curricula support a strong emphasis on problem solving, eliminating the earlier computation steps that can become time-consuming and distract students from their larger learning goals. Calculators free students to use the calculations they have done to answer theoretical questions, consider bigger questions about data and develop a higher understanding of the meaning behind their calculations.

For more information regarding the benefits of calculators and what a true difference they can make, contact SchoolMart today at 1-800-285-2662.