Use of calculators in education

I hate calculators. All my students have heard me repeatedly reiterating that the public enemy should not be used, and it is better to be buried in their garden. If I were a dictator, I would burn them all at stake with no regrets. I wish I lived in a world where the only legally valid reason for owning a calculator was a dyscalculia diagnosis. As you can see, this hatred cuts deep, and I will explain to you why.

What is the door through which everyone enters the maths universe? It is the basic arithmetic and numerical skills that everyone is expected to master by the end of their primary. If this initial step is done right, children develop a rudimentary understanding of numbers and fundamental rules and convince themselves that the boogieman called maths is not so scary after all. They know they get it, and they are ready to take on whatever comes next. Who knows, maybe, they even dive deeper in the ocean and learn some of the last few millennia's wisdom that powers the modern society around us.

That is how it is supposed to work anyway. What about reality? Well, in reality, most children never pass this stage. They develop different shades of maths phobia and start to rationalize their fear and incompetence by statements such as how is maths useful in real life anyway? I got a calculator, so why would I waste my time learning this? I am just not a maths person! This problem is not new, but the solution is: allow a calculator for everyone as early as possible and do not worry that they have no clue what they are doing. If they happen to press the right buttons, it will give them enough points to pass the test, and we are all happy. Right?

No! I am terrified by the prospects of utterly innumerate society in which a prime minister kills tens of thousands because they do not understand how big 2% can be, doctors hurt their patients because 1.5 and 15 feel almost the same, and almost everyone gets screwed because they cannot add up the numbers on the contracts they have signed. But the worst part is that it does not have to be this way because the number of dyscalculics is tiny and even they are on the spectrum. We only have to change how we teach basic numeracy.

Most people I teach know they have a problem, but they are often wrong about what it is. They are not struggling with what they are just doing at school but have never properly learnt basic numeracy. Unsurprisingly, if they unsuccessfully grapple with a few trivial skills that a dedicated 6-year-old can master, they do not feel confident. If they get most questions wrong because of numerical errors, they feel hopeless. They do not want to try because they will fail anyway. It is safer just to quit.

What do calculators have to do with all this you might ask? Well, they multiply the size of the problem by hiding it and standing in the way of a solution. As years go by, the gap grows to the extent that maths become utterly incomprehensible and the button pressing does not cut it anymore. The small initial problem turns into a beast that would require such a time commitment and degree of change that almost nobody takes up the fight. And I do not blame them. How would you feel if I told you that the last decade of your life was a mistake, you should forget it and start again from scratch? Would it not be reasonable to ask why you did not tell me this earlier or nudged me to make the right choice? Yet, the remedy is so simple, and it has never failed me.

Take hundreds of distinct individuals from different backgrounds who often have nothing in common except for their incompetence in maths and seeing me; teach them basic numeracy and convince them to at least reduce the use of a calculator, and as a result, their competence, confidence and grades go up. What a surprise! Who could have guessed this?

I use technology every day. Tools such as Wolfram Alpha, Mathematica, or google save me a lot of time, and I am glad to have them. Consequently, I do not say that there is absolutely no place for tech. But does it genuinely benefit to children who barely command basic arithmetic? The dyscalculics are indisputably the beneficiaries of this policy who would be otherwise excluded from the classroom. But what about the rest?

For most people, calculators cause more harm than good and will prevent them from truly reaching their potential. If we wondered in the hypothetical realm in which I can completely rewrite the curriculums and how the education system works, my position would change significantly. However, in the real world, we need to ask only one question: is the cost of calculators to the individuals and society with minimum benefits for the majority justified?

I gathered the evidence, did the maths and the answer is vehement no! The dyscalculics get a pass until we can help them by other means, but the rest needs to learn their numeracy and dig a nice hole for their frenemies.

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