Why and how advocacy of calculator use ultimately undermines the development of elementary students' math abilities.

After more than 12 years as an educator, I’ve observed that calculators ultimately do not help elementary school students - through to the end of Grade 8 - learn mathematics.  Calculators become an unnecessary distraction – and eventually undermine – a student’s long-term abilities in mathematics. Numerous reasons and factors account for this phenomenon.

Once a student is allowed to use a calculator in a math class, the student (maybe naturally) disconnects from learning math.  Math becomes relegated to a sequence of depressions on a keypad.  Thereafter, lost in the journey of elementary school math is the opportunity for the student to learn how numbers work together to produce different results based on a particular math operation used.  Important considerations such as place value (for example) are totally obscured; students end up not recognizing a difference between 100 and 100,000.  This renders the student unable to predict what a reasonable answer or result to a math problem should be through rough estimation and ‘Mental Math’.

The student develops a false sense of security that she or he is ‘good at math’ (as long as a calculator is readily available), while still reaching for the calculator for even the most basic of calculations … such as to add 6 + 7 together.  The dependency on mechanical computational devices (including smart phones) becomes all-consuming.

In offering preparation courses for standardized tests, I’ve seen the disastrous results of introducing calculator use too early in a student’s academic journey via the ‘Math - No Calculator’ section of a variety of standardized tests.  Students routinely score between 15% - 20% in these sections.  This carries over in the ‘Math – Calculator’ sections, wherein a student who is challenged in Math is unable to decode or complete the underlying arithmetic required for the solution to a word problem – even with the use of a calculator – as a result of a fundamental deficiency in mathematics.

The student continues to carry a deficit of ‘Mental Math’ awareness throughout his or her adult life – unable to perform rudimentary everyday life tasks such as rough calculations for the cost of groceries, taxes payable on goods purchased, or change to be received from a convenience store clerk.  In extreme cases, the condition can sometimes progress into a form of Dyscalculia.

While some school systems continue to advocate on behalf of a ‘Discovery Math’ approach to learning mathematics, one outcome I continue to see evidence of is that students discover that they haven’t learnt much math through this approach.

See ‘Why Mental Math is important’ for additional (related) supporting information.