Calculators When Should Students Begin to Use Them

I am the father of three girls, two of which are thoroughly integrated into a New England public school system. On the first day of the fourth grade, my eldest daughter came home with a list of required school supplies. Amongst the expected items of pencils, notebooks and pens was a calculator. I could not understand why this item was required when they had not completely covered all of the elementary operations of mathematics.

I raised my concern of calculator usage to her math teacher only to be met with the response that the course curriculum required it. I asked what the calculator would be used for since the problems within her textbook rarely exceeded two-digit problems. Again, the response was that the curriculum required that the students be taught how to use the calculator. I personally have no problem with students learning how to use the calculator but I was concerned with the fact that they would be allowed to use it on their homework, quizzes, and tests.

The youth of today are being taught to rely on tools such as computers and calculators without applying a “sanity check” to determine if the result is correct or not. It has been my sad experience on more than one occasion to give a young cashier money for my purchases, they punch some buttons, and they are handing more money as change than I gave them for what I purchased. Once they learn how to use the cash register or calculator, they seem to go on autopilot and are no longer active thinking if their results are logical or not.

Another practice that seems to have gone by the way of the dinosaur is counting back change. In doing so, the “sanity check” is somewhat built-in. It is comparable to plugging your answer back into the problem to check your solution. This is another task that I no longer see taught in the public schools in our area. This is a skill I emphasize when my daughters are doing their homework so they may often identify when they make errors in calculations and re-work the problem to find the correct solution.

I long for the day when students are again required to memorize the basic times tables so they can perform rudimentary math quickly in their heads. I feel that armed with this and other tenets that comprise a solid foundation of knowledge, students will not only find mathematics easier but the will build the confidence to scale the lofty peaks of higher level mathematics without the angst that many feel when they encounter them today.