Are you a fan of calculators in the classroom? Now that so many have easy access to a cell phone at all times, is it really still necessary that students learn how to do math without a calculator?
I think we can all agree that calculators can be an extremely helpful tool for students, but there are dangers when students come to rely on them too heavily. A student who needs to type in 7 x 1 in a calculator is going to have a rough time when it comes to factoring quadratics!
How do we take advantage of a calculator as a helpful tool without it becoming a crutch or an obstacle to learning?
Do we ban calculators until a certain grade level? Let students use them all the time? Use them for some topics and not others?
I sent a survey out to over 10,000 math teachers to see how they handle calculator use and I think you'll be surprised by the results!
As you can imagine, no two responses were the same so there's no easy answer.
I think Brent P. said it best though: "I want the students to understand the ideas and concepts of math, and the calculator is a tool, just like a hammer. You have to put in the work WITH the calculator. You can't throw a hammer at a pile of wood to build a house. YOU have to put in the effort."
It's not always easy to decide if students should be allowed to use calculators in the classroom. There are a lot of factors to consider before making a calculator policy for your classroom. Here are a few things to think about:
Calculator Use for Students with an IEP or 504
First, it's important to double-check and see if any students require access to a calculator as an accommodation. Even if a calculator isn't required, you may want to consider letting some students have access to a multiplication chart if they struggle to remember multiplication and division facts. Here's a free printable multiplication chart if you need one.
Calculators and Basic Computational Skills
Are you working on basic computational skills like integer addition or multiplication? In these cases, most teachers who responded to the survey said they do NOT allow students to use a calculator when working on basic skills.
It's important to make sure students have a conceptual understanding of simpler operations like division or adding fractions before it makes sense for them to use a calculator to find the answer. A calculator can actually slow a student down if they're not fluent in their basic math facts, so it's important to wait until they have these mastered if you can.
Emily J. teaches 6th-8th grade and says she has her students take a test over the four basic integer operations before they can start using a calculator. Once they've shown her they have a conceptual understanding of these operations without a calculator, they can start using one to check their work.
When students are working on higher-level skills, especially at the secondary level, it's important to think about what you want students to focus on.
Instead of making an all-or-nothing policy about calculators, many teachers responded that their policy was dependent on the skill they were working on. Lana K. said, "When we are doing a review of basic calculations, no calculators. When they are doing other skills, which is where I want to focus the learning, they can use them. Skills such as solving equations or calculating area, SA, and volume - then they can focus on the skill rather than the computation."
Some students can make it all the way to high school and still not know their multiplication facts. Allowing a struggling student to use a calculator can save them time and help them catch small computational mistakes when they're working on more complex problems. In this type of situation, Patty V. is in favor of using calculators because she is "more concerned with mastery for the topic rather than finding the errors and time issues for lack of multiplication table knowledge."
Calculators on State Standardized Tests
Another thing to consider before deciding if students should use calculators is to consider if your state has a calculator or no-calculator section of its standardized test. I was surprised to learn how many states in the U.S. are using a built-in calculator from Desmos!
A majority of states are currently requiring students to use the Desmos calculator, so it's important to make sure students have opportunities to learn how to use it before the test. Click here to see if your state test uses Desmos.
I was also surprised to see that many states allow students to use calculators on ALL portions of the state standardized test. This is another factor that seemed to have a strong influence on teachers' calculator policies.
Teaching Students HOW to Use a Calculator
If you decide to let your students use a calculator, it's incredibly important that you spend time teaching them how to use it! A tool used incorrectly isn't much good at all.
Several teachers recommended starting to use a calculator to CHECK answers and reinforce what they already know. Make sure to take the time to show students how to correctly enter a problem and to show them common mistakes that can happen with calculators.
Make sure to check out the Desmos help center for lots of helpful training articles if you're just getting started with Desmos. If you're using TI graphing calculators, my friend Tyra from Algebra and Beyond also has several helpful graphing calculator resources for TI-84 or TI-Inspire!
What's Your Calculator Policy?
Are you for or against calculator use in the classroom? Or does it depend on the situation? Let me know in the comments below!