Let me start this discussion by suggesting calculators have no place in elementary or middle school grades. The purpose of mathematics in school is to TEACH kids analytical thought. Teaching them how to do math using a calculator does nothing more than teach them how to use a device.

I bring this up because I recently substituted for 2nd graders which included mathematics. The problems they were working on were simple single digit addition and subtraction. The kids had simple calculators and a Teaching Assistant who came to the room suggested to one student they should take out their calculator. Without offending or challenging the TA., I quickly moved to the ELMO device in front of the classroom and did the problems on the board in front of all the kids so the calculators would not be used.

I need to research this issue further…

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Question: My child is in 2nd grade and I am wondering about them using a calculator. I am not sure I understand this approach. Why would the teacher choose to use a calculator? Isn’t the stuff the calculator does exactly what my child should be learning?

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) says this about calculator use in the math 2nd Grade classroom:

A comprehensive mathematics curriculum should help students learn to use calculators, computers, and other technological tools as a part of learning mathematics. These tools are helpful in doing and understanding mathematics and will be essential in the workplace and in the study of mathematics, science, or engineering in college. We would be remiss not to make their use an integral part of mathematics education. The Standards documents make it clear, however, that such tools do not replace the need to learn basic facts, to compute mentally, or to do reasonable paper-and-pencil computation. The Standards suggest that when used appropriately, calculators and computers enable students to explore new areas of mathematics and to tackle many challenging mathematical problems that are impractical to attempt without the aid of such tools. Indeed, calculators and computers with appropriate software can transform the classroom into a laboratory where students can investigate and experiment with mathematical ideas. (NCTM 1999, p. 7)

The Investigations curriculum’s philosophy about the use of calculators is quite similar. Calculators “are considered tools for doing mathematics, similar to pattern blocks or interlocking cubes. Just as with other tools, students must learn both how to use calculators correctly and when they are appropriate to use. This knowledge is crucial for daily life, as calculators are now a standard way of handling numerical operations, both at work and at home. Using a calculator correctly is not a simple task; it depends on a good knowledge of the four operations and of the number system, so that students can select suitable calculations and also determine what a reasonable result would be. These skills are the basis of any work with numbers, whether or not a calculator is involved.” (Page I-8 of any Investigations unit.)

The Investigations curriculum also recognizes that, despite their importance, calculators are not always appropriate in mathematics instruction. Like any tools, calculators are useful for some tasks, but not for others … [Teachers] will need to make decisions about when to allow students access to calculators and when to ask that they solve problems without them, so they can concentrate on other tools and skills … [Teachers are also encouraged to help students] develop their own sense of which problems they can tackle with their own reasoning and which ones might be better solved with a combination of their own reasoning and the calculator. (Page I-8 of any Investigations unit.) The curriculum supports teachers in thinking about these issues and making such decisions in Teacher Notes such as “Using the Calculator Sensibly in the Classroom” (see p. 37 of Coins, Coupons, and Combinations) and “Using the Calculator in First Grade” (see p. 171 of Building Number Sense).

So in Investigations, children do use calculators, but for specific, mathematical purposes. But what does calculator use actually look like in the primary classroom? There are two kinds of examples, those built in to the curriculum, and those that arise from a particular problem or situation.

In Grade 2 there is an activity called Beat the Calculator (see Coins, Coupons, and Combinations, page 39) which is a built-into-the-curriculum kind of example. Students have been working on solving number strings — adding together several single digit numbers such as 7 + 4 + 3 + 4 + 5. Many students do this by adding together the numbers that equal ten (7+3), and/or doubles facts that they just know (4+4), and then adding those sums together along with any other leftover numbers (5). After they have worked on this a while, Beat the Calculator is introduced. One partner adds a number string mentally while the other tries to add the numbers in order on the calculator. What comes out of this, in the classroom, is that the child working mentally is almost always faster than the child with the calculator.

Other times, calculators can enable students to solve a problem that they couldn’t otherwise — due to the size of the numbers, or the complexity of the operation or problem. One math coordinator I know shared this vignette: “Do I like calculators? I love them. I think they’re wonderful. I give parents examples of why, like the day I went into a first grade classroom and the kids were asking, How many days are there in a whole year? I could have simply said to them, “365; sometimes it’s 366.” Instead, I made it a problem to solve. So some kids took the calendar, they started counting every day; some kids took the last number on each month’s page and started adding. It was clearly a problem that most first graders could solve with a calculator. So I tell parents, “We don’t use a calculator for 4 x 7 in third and fourth grade, you have to know 4 x 7. But this is an example of when we use a calculator.”

One parent I talked to about calculator use in the primary grades suggested: “Give [other parents with this question] the parameters of using them. For instance, explain that it is not the mission of the curriculum to have the students use calculators only. Each child will learn computations in their heads and not be dependent on the machines (or their fingers, another common second grade strategy, particularly early in the year).” Hopefully, this response has done just what she suggested!

Megan Murray, TERC

October 2002