Debunking the Calculator Myth

  • Debunking the Calculator Myth

    By Kathleen Lynch-Davis, Posted March 30, 2015 – 

    Numerous 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.

    To 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.

    NCTM’s (2011) position on calculator use is clear and aligns with the Common Core’s Standards for Mathematical Practice:

    Calculators 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)

    Furthermore, 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.

    I invite you to share your thoughts about calculator use in your classroom. Please share your great calculator tasks, too!


    Reys, Barbara, 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,, 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.

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    Ralph Connelly - 4/3/2015 2:45:34 PM
    An excellent post! Perhaps the most important "calculator skill" we can give our students is knowing when it makes sense to use a calculator and when it doesn't. My favorite calculator task isn't really a single task, but a task "format" that I believe shows clearly when the power of the calculator can be effectively used--namely, Fermi questions, such as estimating the number of pennies that would have to be stacked to reach the height of your school, how many minutes you've been alive, how many people in the country are talking on their cell phones in any given minute, etc. For these types of questions, all the real reasoning/strategizing has to take place mentally, and all the calculator can do is make the calculations determined by the selected strategy (e.g., one student might determine the number of pennies in a 1 inch stack, and use the appropriate multiples of that to find number of pennies in a foot, a yard, etc., while another might measure the length of a roll of pennies, estimate the number of "penny rolls" needed for various heights, and use that information to determine a height in "penny rolls", then multiply that by the number of pennies in a roll) The calculator is certainly handy for performing the calculations needed, but the mathematical reasoning has to be done by the student. These types of problems clearly show what the calculator can do, and what it can't! RalphC