Calculators in the Math Classroom: In Memory of a Friend and Obstinate Student

photograph by Shaun Wood

Today I found out I lost a contemporary, a friend.  This friend, who once was a highly successful investment banker with a lucrative business, left an affluent lifestyle to pursue a degree in middle level education.  He wanted to make a difference.  He wanted to make an impact on kids’ lives.   He wanted to teach math and science, but to do that he had to go through me.   Even though we were friends, I became the teacher.  He became the student who drew battles lines  — but the battle really began a few years earlier.

I first met this friend by telephone when my college dean referred his question about using calculators in the classroom to me.  He was looking for support in his protest to his son using the tool in his middle school math and science classes.   He shared his objections with me and asked me to share my position, so I did.  In fact, I backed it up with research and personal experiences.  But all of that fell on deaf ears.  I didn’t make a dent in his armored belief that calculators were crutches that were making our students weak in math by causing them to rely on it instead of building mental math skills.   Oh, well.  I tried.

By coincidence, we both became members of the same civic service group.  There we became friends with the agreement that we would not discuss our polar views on calculators in the classroom.

Eight years later,  he applied for and was accepted into the university’s middle childhood education program, my program.   He was smart, and he knew it.  I know he wanted to become a teacher to make difference in young people’s lives, but I also think he was determined to prove me wrong somehow, some way.  He was tough in class.  In fact, some days, his insolence was insufferable.   However, his impudence only caused me to become more grounded in my own philosophies.  I had been out there in the trenches.  I had experience, and I knew how my students had responded, so I did not falter in my convictions.   Eventually, I had to pull the teacher card, and  we had to have an “understanding.”

I was then and still am an advocate for students having a strong foundation of conceptual understanding of what they are doing in math. Once that understanding is gained, students need to master those skills through meaningful practice.  Once mastery takes place, then basic facts need to be memorized.  For some students, learning disabilities hinder memorization, but for the majority, memorization is a great mental exercise that speeds mental calculations when they are needed.

So, when is a calculator appropriate?   Once skills have been mastered and when students are in problem-solving situations, the calculator is a very important tool.   Solving a problem is the objective.  The student must choose the data to enter into the machine and must choose the appropriate operation to perform in order to get a correct answer.  All of that takes knowledge.   Using the calculator allows the student to spend time focusing on solving a problem instead of working on calculations.

Other appropriate uses?  Sure.  Calculators are appropriate when kids check their answers after completing practice problems.   Actually, using calculators when learning the multiplication tables is desirable because the tools reveal that multiplication is just repeated addition and patterns emerge.   This information is very useful in developing conceptual understanding of the operations.   And let’s face it.  Calculators are part of our world now, and kids like them.   When appropriately used, calculators can help students learn math.

I left the university after my friend/student had completed his second year of teaching math in an alternative school for middle school students who had behavior problems in the regular classroom.  I know from personal experience he definitely could relate to them and their disrespect for authority.   But I also know he made a positive impact.  I observed his teaching.  The kids loved him, and many of them did not want to leave him to go back to the regular classroom.

I am sad over the loss of this friend, this teacher who reached so many students when other teachers couldn’t.  I know his students learned math and learned to love math under his guidance.  I think he became a calculator convert to tell you the truth.  But he would never admit it.

Stubborn old coot.   You will be missed.

1 thought on “Calculators in the Math Classroom: In Memory of a Friend and Obstinate Student”

  1. I’m grateful not to have a calculator when learning math. Too many times since school I’ve had to work out calculations without a calculator available. And I remember getting an “A” in a physics class because the final exam was open book and required finding a formula and working out the math. I was one of the first out of the exam room because I could quickly figure out the math faster than anyone else (calculators were not allowed during the test). And when I was doing animation I was always figuring out stuff in my head or with pencil and paper – faster than searching for a calculator.

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