There's a time and place for its use.
There's a time and place for its use.

With the advent of smartphones, many of us now carry calculators in our pockets wherever we go. However, that doesn’t mean students should rely on calculators to do all of their mathematical thinking, and it certainly doesn't excuse them from learning basic number facts. It’s important for teachers to point out the appropriate times for calculator usage, and the times when the only computing device needed is your brain.

No Skill-Building

Calculators take away the necessity for a student to know the basics. Even for young students just learning their facts, it serves no purpose to use a calculator to compute 6x4 (other than, perhaps, to check their answers). Furthermore, a student who relies on the calculator for simple equations will not remember the solution after he writes it down on the homework page. Relying on a calculator results in a child being unable to progress in math due to lack of fluency and recall of facts. A child who is able to compute 6x4 without a calculator knows much more about the concept of multiplication than a calculator user.

Not Learning Concepts

As stated, being able to record an answer on a sheet is simple enough, but understanding the underlying concepts behind the equation show true understanding and mastery of the mathematical subject. From simple multiplications to the quadratic formula, there is no sense in being able to plug numbers into a computer and write down another number unless you understand what the number represents. Many high schools inadvertently cultivate generations of calculator-abusing students by placing more importance on memorizing formulas than on understanding them.

Effects of Overreliance

Just because it’s easier to use a calculator does not mean it’s more efficient to do so. For example, having to reach into your pocket to find your phone and load your calculator app just to plug in 8x.70 to find out how much 8 packs of gum will cost you will take much longer than having memorized 8x7=56 and using your mathematical knowledge to adjust for the decimal. At times, the use of a calculator can be embarrassing -- having to take out your calculator to calculate your percentage grade on a 50-question college algebra test will let the entire class know you didn’t do too well. On the other hand, being able to quickly calculate numbers can be impressive during job interviews -- and continue to come in handy throughout life.

When are Calculators OK?

Calculators really should only be used in school after students have met certain criteria. They should have mastery of the basics of the function being used. For example, a third-grader using a calculator to find 6x2 is not using it properly; a freshman multiplying 6.245 x 3.25 for part A of a multi-step problem is. Many elementary students are “scared” of big numbers -- but using a calculator won’t help them overcome their anxiety. Being able to look at a problem such as 5412/62 and automatically see the resemblance to 54/6 will build a student’s estimation skills, and foster a comprehension of our number system. Using a calculator to check an estimate of 89 is much more meaningful than using it to write down 87.29 and forgetting it.