Debunking the Calculator Myth
By Kathleen Lynch-Davis, Posted March 30, 2015 –
myths surround the use of calculators in the elementary school mathematics classroom.
These myths emerge from numerous individuals; for example, from parents one
might hear, “I learned math without them; so should my child.” Or the companion
argument, “If students use calculators, will they be able to do math without
them?” essentially equating the use of calculators to that of a crutch, not as
a tool for learning. Even my preservice teachers sometimes struggle with the
idea that using calculators will interfere with their students’ procedural fluency.
combat these myths and ones like them in my classroom, I tell my students, both
preservice and in-service teachers, that calculators “do only what you tell
them to do.” And although this is true, it is a simplistic answer to a complex,
multifaceted question. As evidenced in my previous
blog post about calculators, the calculator tasks that engage elementary school
students are important. Equally important is how teachers help their students
navigate using tools strategically (the fifth CCSSM goal) and provide
opportunities to think about when it makes sense to use a calculator. To
illustrate this point, I use an activity in which students complete simple one-digit
calculations; half the class must use a calculator, and the other half
completes the problems by hand. Invariably, the students without the calculator
finish the problems faster than the calculator group and just as accurately. (A
similar activity also exists in the Investigations K–grade 5 mathematics
curriculum, Grade 2 book. Students find the sum of a string of three addends while
another student uses a calculator.) Modeling appropriate use of the calculator
and providing opportunities for teachers to engage with meaningful calculator
tasks will allow them to see not only the importance of using calculators in
their classrooms but also why computational fluency is important and why completing
certain tasks with a calculator is inappropriate or unreasonable.
(2011) position on calculator use is clear and aligns with the Common
Core’s Standards for Mathematical Practice:
have an important role in supporting and advancing elementary mathematics
learning. The benefits of their selective and strategic use are twofold.
Calculators can promote the higher-order thinking and reasoning needed for
problem solving in our information- and technology-based society, and they can
also increase students’ understanding of and fluency with arithmetic
operations, algorithms, and numerical relationships. (CCSSI 2010)
allowing students to gain strategic competence using calculators enables them
to use more of their mental energy for problem solving and reasoning in
mathematics (Reys and Arbaugh 2001). Offering multiple and appropriate
opportunities for elementary school students to engage with calculators is
essential to their mathematical understanding.
invite you to share your thoughts about calculator use in your classroom.
Please share your great calculator tasks, too!
and Fran Arbaugh. 2001. “Principles and Standards: Clearing Up the Confusion over Calculator Use in Grades K–5.” Teaching Children Mathematics 8 (October): 90–94.
TERC. 2007. Investigations in Number, Data, and Space
(2nd edition). Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Kathleen Lynch-Davis, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Appalachian State University. She currently teaches mathematics education and curriculum courses to elementary and middle-grades preservice and in-service teachers. Her research interests include preparing elementary school mathematics specialists and online learning in mathematics education.