Calculators

This morning I woke to see this article entitled “Weapons of maths destruction: are calculators killing our ability to work it out in our head?” from The Conversation promoted on my Twitter feed. The article is written by Dr Jeanne Carroll of the College of Education at Victoria University, Melbourne she puts forward the view that calculators are not affecting our mental arithmetic “as much as we would like them too”. She cites a blog post from the NFER in November 2014 (following the banning of calculators from primary mathematics tests) indicating that the apparent increased use of calculators at the primary level hadn’t adversely affected pupils abilities at mental maths. She also includes some quotes from Conrad Wolfram (the brother of Mathematica creator Stephen Wolfram) taken from a TED talk of his – I have decided I will blog separately about this at a later date in the summer. Dr Carroll’s article is well worth a read and provides plenty food for thought.

Personally, I feel that student’s reliance on calculators has adversely affected their ability to perform mental arithmetic calculations, or at the very least, their willingness to actually do calculations themselves. I often see students in my KS3 top sets do things like \(8 \times 4 \) on a calculator, and when I question them, they explain that they “just want to be sure”. A Level students routinely use calculators for simple arithmetic (and for calculating the standard trig ratios) with the justification that “only in C1 can we not use a calculator, so why wouldn’t we?”. Stephen Cavadino (@srcav) has also written along these lines here. I personally fell that, especially at A Level, calculators are not used effectively. They seem to be used purely to do relatively trivial calculations, instead of being used to explore other areas of mathematics, that couldn’t as easily be explored without calculators. In fact as it stands, the A Level mathematics qualifications don’t really reflect the way in which technology is used for mathematics – I am anticipating this to change somewhat with the new specification, and MEI’s Further Pure Mathematics with Technology module is an excellent example of how technology could be used at the KS5 level to inspire future mathematicians.

Anyway, I have digressed from the topic of calculators somewhat…. My view is that it is important for students to still be able to perform mental calculations proficiently but I don’t believe that removing calculators completely would help with this. This opinion is partly based on my observation that generally those students who can use calculators effectively (i.e. those who understand where to put brackets) can perform mental calculations perfectly well when required too. Manan Shah (@shahlock) has also observed this. I think it is a shame that their isn’t a mental maths aspect to GCSEs, as the non calculator paper doesn’t really test the ability to use (and choose the best) mental calculation methods.

I love calculators – you my have seen my excitement on Twitter recently over a new purchase – but since going into teaching I have made a conscious effort to not use them that often. I had become very lazy and my speed at recalling basic times tables etc was definitely not as good as it should be (I now enjoy practicing them with my classes on Times Table Rockstars) and I think it is important that I can model to my students in all years that you do not always need to use a calculator. The ability to calculate mentally is very useful as at the very least you can obtain ball park figures to check calculator based calculations.

I think it is time I stop writing, this post feels very rambley! Sorry!!

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