My class supplies list for my junior year of high school included something I had never needed before: a scientific calculator that cost a little under $100. Armed with my daunting calculator, I faced Pre-Calculus with wide, equation-glossed eyes. But I started to relax when I figured out the magic of the calculator: punch in buttons and be rewarded with the answer. With the accessibility of my expensive gadget, I no longer found myself doing even basic math. For anything outside of the obvious equations, I let the machine handle it. Now, in my junior year of college, I sometimes struggle to remember what twelve times five yields. But why should I think about that, when I can just whip out the pre-programmed calculator in my iPhone?
In a recent article in the New York Times, writer Anna M. Phillips discusses the current use of calculators in classrooms and national exams. While proponents for the calculators point out how they allow students to focus more on problem solving and less on the actual calculating, there is a group of people who argue that a heavy reliance on calculators means that the students are just learning how to work the device, and not learning any actual math. Teacher Cara Lin Bridgman noted how an introductory Calculus class she took at the University of Tennessee taught her how to get the calculator to arrive at the correct answer, but not how it got the answer. Michael Holmes, a college Chemistry professor, gave an anecdote to illustrate the issue. When he asks students to find the mass of a substance, and some students are given a negative number from their calculator, some don’t even realize that the calculator has made an error: mass is always a positive number.
PSG’s Senior Math Editor Tim Breeze-Thorndike comments, “If we teach students how to problem solve and help them understand how mathematics works before we allow them to use calculators, it could be great. We need to make sure that we don’t just teach them how to use calculators.”
Just as no English teacher would deny a student the dictionary to check the spelling of a word, no Math teacher would want to deny a student the chance to utilize a calculator. However, while most high schools still promote spelling tests, few insist on mental logic math tests. Students are becoming dependent on the calculator without knowing how the conclusions are being drawn, and having an unwavering faith in a computer only heightens the problem. If this worsens, will the average person know how to solve twelve times five without a calculator in 100 years?