Calculators vs. No Calculators

  • The role of calculators in math instruction can be a confusing concept. Do calculators in the classroom relieve students from the responsibility of being able to add, subtract, multiply and divide fluently? Are all expectations of computation gone? Let me assure you this is not the case.

    The 6th grade math standards state that students are expected to “fluently divide multi-digit numbers using the standard algorithm” and “fluently add, subtract, multiply, and divide multi-digit decimals using the standard algorithm for each operation.”

    Another one of the standards states that students in all grades should learn to “use appropriate tools strategically.” This standard specifically states and includes calculators and spreadsheets as tools that students should know when and how to use.

    This spring students will be able to use a calculator on 2 of the 3 sections of the NYS Mathematics Assessment. However, quite clearly, they will not be allowed to use a calculator on the first section of the test.

    I do believe that students should be taught and expected to compute fluently. Traditional computation leads to the ability to solve problems mentally and the ability to know if an answer is reasonable when using a calculator.

    I also recognize that calculators, including the ones that are on nearly all cell phones and other forms of technology, are very prevalent in our society. Wherever you happen to be reading this newsletter, think for a moment how many footsteps, keystrokes, or swipes you are away from a calculator. My guess is that it isn’t too far.

    My plan for addressing the expectation of computational fluency, while at the same time using calculators as an appropriate tool, is to purposefully select and clearly state activities in which students are not allowed to use calculators and activities in which calculators are allowed. Weekly Reviews will always be NO CALCULATOR. Since demonstrating and communicating mathematical thinking is so important, any activity that allows the use of a calculator students must show their work. “Write it before you type it!” will become our mantra. 

    I hope this helps clarify the role of calculators in the math classroom. If you have any questions, as always, feel free to contact me.