Monday, April 6, 2009

The Curse Of The Calculator

I've been having many discussions with neighbors about their concerns for Hillsboro schools. One interesting theme that came up was the problem of over-reliance on calculators when teaching arithmetic.

While there is certainly a place for calculators in some situations, I think it is vital that students first learn how to do old-fashioned calculations with a pencil and paper. This is often derided as "drill and kill", but is what gives people a basic intuition of how to deal with numbers. Sure, technically it's the same if you remember 2+3=5 from repeating a lot of hand calculations, or if you type 2 and 3 into a magical black box and get 5-- but the thought process is a lot different. When you do it by hand, you can't help but notice patterns and gain an inherent feel for the numbers. If all you do is mechanically type them in and always get a guaranteed answer, you may lose even your basic impulses of curiosity about what's happening. In one of my podcasts, I illustrated this issue with a story about a run-in I had with an obviously machine-dependent teenager:

Recently I was at a local fast food restaurant, and I saw a burger that looked good for $1.98. I ordered two of the burgers, plus a soda which was 99 cents, and the cashier told me the total was 6.93. I looked at her, confused, and tried to reason with her. "You see that burger I ordered is about 2 dollars? And I got two of them, plus a one dollar soda. Shouldn't the total be around 5 dollars?" She was a bit annoyed. "So, you're not going to pay the amount displayed on the register?" I valiantly tried one more time to reason with her."Look, 2 + 2 + 1 equals 5. So the total should be close to 5 dollars. Something is wrong here." She gave up and went back to get the manager. I could overhear her speaking to him, though she didn't realize it. "An irate customer up front is refusing to pay for his meal." Needless to say, after the manager finally sorted things out, it turned out she had rung me up for an extra burger.

I'm glad to see that a backlash is developing against the emphasis on calculators these days, both in neighborhood chats and online. While I love technology, it has its proper time and place, and we cannot allow a dependence on cool gizmos to replace our kids' basic skills.

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