Using Calculators – Redux

Back in January, one of our blog entries touched on the use of calculators in mathematics instruction and made the point that while calculators in and of themselves are wonderful tools, the incorrect use of them can have detrimental effects on a student’s mathematical development.

In particular, we often observe that students not only rely on calculators for fractional operations as a means of shortening fractionally intensive problems, but they often use them to mask a lack of fundamental comfort with fractionally intensive or division heavy problem scenarios.

The concern we have over this observation recently acquired some scientific backing in the form of a study by both Carnegie-Mellon University and The University of Michigan.  The study found that 5th grade students’ mastery of both fractions and long-division were excellent predictors of both algebraic and long-term mathematical success.  That is to say that if a student does not master these concepts and demonstrate consistent facility with them, then there is a statistically significant possibility that long-term mathematical success will be more elusive than otherwise.  Furthermore, in an increasingly complex world, mathematical facility is becoming more and more of a necessity, rather than something that is “nice to have.”

The take-away from this study does not directly indict calculator use, but it does raise questions that give us pause to consider why we have observed the aforementioned behavior.  The previously described calculator use could be but a symptom that derives from lack of student mastery, but the question as to why students are not mastering the skill in the first place remains an open one.  Is it due to lack of instructor mastery of the concepts as the following video intimates, or is it a more of a “downstream” problem having to do with teaching techniques, or is it as simple as inappropriate reliance on the aforementioned calculators?  That answer is not yet clear, but the observation that was previously raised as a concern seems valid, regardless.  What do you think?

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