Do calculators belong in elementary school?

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Should third graders use calculators in class?

This is a real question that has been brought up not once, but twice, within the first six weeks of school by an 8 year old boy who goes to a North American public school.

There are several astonishing thoughts that enter my head:

  • This grade 3 child has yet to touch on multiplication (whether in class or as homework). He did learn some multiplication in grade 2 but the math sheets he has taken home so far, six weeks into grade 3, are about addition and subtraction, with or without carrying or borrowing the 1. If simple arithmetic is on the menu (curriculum) what is the need to use an aid like a calculator then? Why would an 8 year old kid even hear the suggestion about using calculators to add and subtract numbers?
  • Reading the internet and talking to people of all walks of life, it appears that the grade 3 curriculum is inconsistently followed all over the place. One third grade kid is doing multiplication, another kids is using calculators to add or subtract, a third kid is practicing algebra by drawing and colouring patterns on paper. Some kids I personally talked to are incapable of adding four quarters together to make up a dollar at the grade 3 level. Another kid is doing word problem mathematics. I find this confusing.
  • Repetition and practice of a subject matter is a proven concept that helps children to learn and get better. Repetition and practice appears to be completely absent in my own children’s elementary school activities. To remedy this, some parents try to supplement their children’s schooling by providing them with workbooks or activities they can do at home, whether or not they bring home any homework. Often, this is met with conflict, usually because the child is unwilling to spend time at home doing ‘school work’. (I talked about this lack of routine in the post about homework.) An alternative way to help the children to learn math without imitating a public school environment (worksheets) is to take them grocery shopping with a notepad and pencil, or have them help you bake something by letting them half, or double a recipe and measuring out ingredients. The point is, repetition of learned concepts make it easier to retain the concepts. I am not sure how much repetition of learned concepts are actually occurring…

Going back to the calculator issue at hand, an email to the teacher to ask for clarification resulted in a surprising outcome. Not only did the teacher agree to the use of calculators in the classroom (under specific circumstances, not at free will of the student), there was also mention of things like ‘feeling bogged down’ and ‘higher concept learning’.

I was stumped.

How is it possible a child might feel “bogged down” when doing certain types of mathematical exercises? If this is in fact the case, perhaps the child has not yet learned the concept at hand. Can the child add or subtract the numbers without help from an adult? Or a calculator?  If not, why not? Why would a so-called ‘higher concept’ even be attempted if the basic, foundational concept has not been mastered yet?

The ‘higher concept’ remark bothered me as well. What does it mean? I was always under the impression that elementary education was about foundational learning. If you can add and subtract we move on to multiplication. Once you master the basics in multiplication we move on to division. Then, long division….

College professors are teaching higher concepts at the post-secondary level. Some of whom, my own husband for example, talk of struggle when trying to reach some of his own 20 year old students. Some of these high school graduates are having trouble doing mental math, like simple arithmetic, in their head. It would be interesting to query them about when they started using calculators in math class. Was it back in grade school? Are they now using their smartphones to plug in arithmetic at any given moment?

Has it become that easy to not think anymore?

Baffling. It just does not add up.


2 thoughts on “Do calculators belong in elementary school?

  1. Huh. A calculator wasn’t on the list of required items for grade 3 for us, and even though it *is* on the list for grades 4 and 5, so far my two in those grades have been told to put them away, they won’t be used this year. You’d think with EQAO being in Grade 3 there would be much more consistency. I definitely feel like a calculator has no place in any grade school math classroom…I can’t think of any scenario where one would be useful.

    • Never saw a ‘required list’ but they have them in the classroom and are allowed/encouraged to bring their own. I’m just not convinced it’s necessary to train them this early to reach for the easy way out… weird.

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