Should my student be using a calculator in maths?

Should you allow your student to use a calculator? If so, when is it appropriate? When I was growing up, I was barely allowed to use a calculator.  My grandfather was “old school”, and believed that it would make me lazy. Many years later and several technological advancements, I’m very grateful to him for encouraging me to rely on my own abilities. I use my mental math skills daily, from grocery shopping to planning my budget and to understanding work projects at a deeper level. Sometimes complex concepts that others struggle to understand are made simple by the maths skills I've learnt all my life. Having good maths skills has had a huge impact on my life and continues to keep giving.  

There are a few things to consider when deciding to use calculators with your students. A calculator is a common tool that is available when learning maths. However, before plunging in and handing out calculators to all your students, you need to determine if it's a good idea and if your students are ready for them. Do your student understand Place Value concretely? Are they still finger counting? Do they understand what they are doing with maths and can confidently explain it? 

If your student can confidently use maths without a calculator, they can start using a calculator for longer maths equations. However, if they don't know what they are doing, it will be a big disadvantage for them to use a calculator in maths.

Let's discuss this further below, with a few different views from maths experts around the world. When to use calculators in maths is an important question for all maths teachers, and one that needs time for research and explanation.

Do calculators work when learning maths?

Well, that depends on how your student uses the calculator. If they can only do basic single-digit addition and have to reach for their calculator (or phone) to add up the bigger equations, you're in trouble!

It also means that maths hasn't been taught with a mastery-based approach. Teaching maths in a foundational way is essential not only to increase confidence and get better results, but also to enable your student to use maths in everyday life situations.

calculator in maths

When should maths students be allowed to use calculators?

Some teachers suggest using calculators occasionally, while others like Bob Miller, explain that calculators should not be used at all. As we have discussed earlier, if your student doesn't understand the basic foundational concepts of maths, or fully understand what they are doing when they use a calculator, it is not a good idea to introduce calculators to the classroom.

Basic arithmetic is absolutely necessary to do by hand (you should see the way basic operations are taught in some schools, especially multiplication and division). When students do computations by hand, they get a feel for numbers and number patterns, along with a love and appreciation of math—very important as the level of math increases. Also, they can function much better in the real world, doing discounts and unit pricing in their heads, as examples.

For example, when talking about square roots, nobody ever uses  anymore in real life maths. However, it's important that teachers still teach it to their students as important skills are involved. Students learn to complete maths problems that are long, with increasingly longer steps. They learn patterns, again strengthening their minds. Of course, the teacher should explain why it works—that goes without saying. Relating this to writing, how do you know when words are spelled incorrectly? You know because you have written out words so often that you sense when they are spelled incorrectly. Computers severely hurt spelling skills in the same way calculators hurt math skills. However, a non-mathematical mind is much more serious than a bad speller.
 
"Let me give you two examples of why calculators should not be used. On a walk to my school, I met the principal of an elementary school. With 500 kids and only two administrators, his job was multifaceted (a topic for another discussion). He was looking for a book to teach students the area of a rectangle and said it was a horrible search. He found a number of books like this: Out of only five practice examples, the first was b = 7 and h = 9. The next four were b = 2.34 and h = 5.67. Do you think a student is going to learn what the area of a rectangle is? The student is so involved in hitting the correct keys that the principle is lost, pun intended. Say you have these algebra problems: (A) is 7x – 3 = 2x – 23, and (B) is 7.234x – 3.743 = 2.123x – 23.567. Will the student learn anything from example B?"

calculator in maths

What are the Pros and Cons of Using
a Calculator for Maths? 

PROS USING A CALCULATOR IN MATHS

Primary School (Grade 1 - 3)

Ultimately a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of maths will be the cornerstone of a student’s success. Therefore it is recommended that calculator use be limited during this part of their education. This is a great stage to introduce it as the tool it is, but teach them that the calculator can’t solve all the problems in maths.  

Demonstrate the functionality of a basic calculator so that they can know what to do. Have some fun by spelling out words on the calculator using numbers. If you input 07734 on the calculator and flip it upside down, it spells “hello”. A simple four-function calculator will work best for this age group.

Use it to teach patterns and sequences. For example: if you enter 5+5 then the equal sign, the result is 10. If you press the equal sign again, it will add an additional 5 to the total. This can help students with addition and multiplication. Try the same method with division and subtraction. Have them enter numbers (try 32 – 4 or 32 ÷ 4) and continue to press the equal sign. Once they proceed to pass 0, the student will be introduced to the concept of negative numbers as well.

Primary and Lower High School (Grade 4-7 and 8)

A scientific calculator will be more appropriate for this group. There are a variety of scientific calculators available, equipped to handle more complex computing.  When should it be used? That depends on the complexity of the problem or activity. At this stage, students should be using a combination of mental math, paper and pencil, and a calculator.

It is important that the students have a firm grasp of the basics. Students should be able to work through problems and perform the necessary steps. As calculators are accurate, once your student completes their problems on their own they can use the calculator to check their work. Position the calculator as a backup, not the primary tool.

High School (Grade 7 and 8 - 12)

By this age, students should have mastered the fundamentals of math and are prepared for more advanced concepts. Maths will become increasingly difficult during these years. Technology will already be integrated in their curriculum, and calculators will naturally be included as well. While students should rely on their calculators, they will be necessary. During these years students will progress beyond the basic scientific calculator to more advanced calculators. Graphing calculators will need to be incorporated. Graphing calculators perform a variety of functions, with the ability to create charts and graphs.

Calculators can help students feel more comfortable, but there will still be a need for balance. The calculator can simplify tasks but will not do the work for them. Encourage the student to focus on the areas of problem solving that will help them be successful not only in school, but in life.  Logic, critical and analytical problem solving, and reasoning will take them farther than a calculator. Consider a “technology break” one day a week to reinforce concepts and build the student’s confidence in their own abilities.

CONS OF USING A CALCULATOR IN MATHS

There are also some important cons of using a calculator in maths class. According to Resilient Educator, it's important to make sure your students aren't relying solely on technology to the point where their skills diminish and your pupils become complacent.

Calculators cause complacency in maths

Although calculators are able to quickly add, divide, multiply and subtract, students still can’t use calculators as their complete fall-back plan – they still need to know how to do math long-hand.

That’s where teachers have to be careful because if students fall into a pattern of just using a calculator to complete all of their math work, they’ll never appropriately develop their math skills, which will surely come back to hurt them during standardised tests and elsewhere in their lives. Don’t let your students become complacent.

Calculators can cause cheating

Graphing calculators are advanced calculators that can perform a variety of functions besides basic multiplication, subtraction, addition and division. They also allow users to store notes, but that’s not always a good thing for teachers or students.

If you allow students to use calculators on tests in your class, they might store formulas, rules and other notes on their calculators and use the information to cheat on the test. That’s why it’s important that the teacher implement a calculator policy that clearly spells out when students are allowed to use calculators in the classroom.

Calculators cost money, and aren't the best tools on the market to teach maths

The cost of buying calculators is important to be aware of, especially when they aren't the best tools for teaching maths and don't support students with proper learning of numbers. While you can purchase a simple calculator generally for under $10, graphing calculators and other more advanced devices cost about $100.

Additionally, calculators require batteries in order to operate, which is a recurring cost as far as the electronic devices are concerned. It's a small cost just for one piece, but for an entire classroom or group, that cost is doubled significantly.

However, there are better tools for teaching maths that are available. The popular hands-on blocks that are being used by schools, teachers and tutors in classrooms are a much better choice because they teach all the foundational and advanced concepts of maths from preschool to highschool maths. It's a much better investment and one that will impact your student's education in a postive way. 

calculator in maths

Does your student really need a calculator for maths?

No matter what stage your student is in their education, there is no replacement for knowledge. The calculator is a tool, not a magic wand. The primary focus should always be to learn and master the concepts presented. Encourage your student to use the tools at their disposal, but not rely on technology more than themselves.

The Math-U-See program does not include specific instruction on the use of a calculator however, calculators can be used when the student knows which buttons to push. Most students who are taught using rote learning or memorisation will be strong on facts and formulas however, they may not know when to use the facts or formulas. When they are taught using a multisensory approach, students understand maths on a much deeper, more confident level and their results increase dramatically. 

Even when using a calculator, students need to have more rounded understanding of maths to know which buttons to push on the calculator to achieve the correct answer. They also need to be able to recognise the signs and symbols and what they mean. Is that the multiplication button or the division button? When would I use it to achieve the answer I desire? Therefore, mastering maths concepts for complete proficiency is the key to ongoing mastery of maths.

Testing your student's maths understanding

Here's a free diagnostic test so you can determine your student's maths understanding (and if they really know their stuff). This online test also helps you know where to start and what you can do to help them learn maths properly.

calculator in maths

Good luck with maths!

Warmly,

Esther White

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