• When calculators are used appropriately in the classroom, experts say they can enhance students’ understanding and increase their proficiency in math. “Calculators and other technological tools … are vital components of a high-quality mathematics education,” the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) said in a 2008 position statement. “With guidance from effective mathematics teachers, students at different levels can use these tools to support and extend mathematical reasoning and sense making, gain access to mathematical content and problem-solving contexts, and enhance computational fluency.”
• Calculators make problem-solving much more efficient.
• By using calculators, teachers can focus instruction, where appropriate, not on computation but on mathematical thinking. “The calculator is the tool you use once the student has made the strategic decision – what do I do with these numbers?” says Henry Kepner, NCTM’s president. If a student is solving a problem with particularly messy numbers, the process of computation can actually be a distraction. “They may have an answer but they forget the question they have an answer to.”
• Calculators are crucial tools used in day-to-day tasks and math-related jobs and – as is true of computer skills – students must develop strong calculator skills to compete. In other words, mastering calculator skills is part of mastering math skills. “The calculator’s ubiquitous,” Kepner says. “The question is, are they using the machine intelligently?”
• An overemphasis on calculators, particularly in elementary education, could potentially interfere with students learning computational skills. In its 2008 report, the National Mathematics Advisory Panel cautioned “that to the degree that calculators impede the development of automaticity, fluency in computation will be adversely affected.”
• Calculators allow students to “arrive at answers without thinking,” says a 2005 report on the state of math standards. The report, by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, concluded: “One of the most debilitating trends in current state math standards is their excessive emphasis on calculators. Most standards documents call upon students to use them starting in the elementary grades, often beginning with Kindergarten. Calculators enable students to do arithmetic quickly, without thinking about the numbers involved in a calculation. For this reason, using them in a high school science class, for example, is perfectly sensible. But for elementary students, the main goal of math education is to get them to think about numbers and to learn arithmetic. Calculators defeat that purpose.”
• Even at the high school level, the curriculum can overemphasize calculator use to the detriment of student learning. For example: “Standards calling for students to use graphing calculators to plot straight lines are not uncommon,” according to the Fordham Foundation report. “Students should become skilled in graphing linear functions by hand, and be cognizant of the fact that only two points are needed to determine the entire graph of a line. This fundamental fact is easily camouflaged by the obsessive use of graphing technology.”
• The cost of graphing calculators ($100-200) can be daunting for many families.