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Smart phones, calculators -tools create kids who like math

Smart phones, calculators -tools create kids who like math
Smart phones, calculators -tools create kids who like math
Tracy Lynn Cook

Parents who try to help their children with math homework may be noticing changes in the way their students are learning math.

There is less of an emphasis placed on the "nitty gritty" aspects of math with wider acceptance of the use of calculators. Of course this makes sense for the fact that students can spend less time on the actual calculation and more time learning the logistics of complex algebraic functions.

This is great news for students with math learning disabilities, such as difficulty with remembering multiplication facts or taking timed math tests. The simple use of a calculator could be the difference between someone who is enthusiastic about learning math, and the student who despises math with a passion.

On Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon interviewed Keith Devlin, who explained that there's a reason elementary schools are teaching arithmetic in a new way.

"That's largely to reflect the different needs of society," he says. "No one ever in their real life anymore needs to — and in most cases never does — do the calculations themselves."

Computers do arithmetic for us, but making computers do the things we want them to do requires algebraic thinking. For instance, take a computer spreadsheet. The computer does all the calculations for you automatically. But you have to write the macros that tell it what calculations to do — and that is algebraic thinking.

"You cannot become good at algebra without a mastery of arithmetic," Devlin says, "but arithmetic itself is no longer the ultimate goal." Thus the emphasis in teaching mathematics today is on getting people to be sophisticated, algebraic thinkers.

Across Gilbert, schools use a variety of mathematical approaches, some emphasizing memorization while others emphasize logistics. Students who were exposed to Saxon math (memorization) seemed to flounder a bit when transferred into the logistical approach because they spent more time on arithematics, and less time on how to actually use the math they were so great at figuring out.

One local homeschooling mom who was horrible at math has taught her son how to "use his resources" by encouraging the use of a calculator. He knows how to do the math - but math lessons are much more fun when the emphasis is on the "bigger picture".

If the use of calculators is all it takes to keep kids engaged and enthusiastic about math - why not?

Would you like to hear the interview from NPR? Here is the link.


Tracy Lynn Cook is a writer in Gilbert, Arizona. To read more, please visit her blog at, and follow her on twitter @TLCsThoughts.

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