The Benefits of Using a Calculator: In and out of the Classroom

Hey! No cheating!

You may have heard this or something similar in school as you reached for a calculator during math class.

Until recently, schools have been vehemently opposed to students using calculators to do their work for them. Well, until students get into higher level math classes that require a graphing calculator, that is.

But did you know some educators are now advocating the use of calculators in all levels of school?

Turns out most adults really do carry around a tiny pocket calculator everywhere they go, inside their smartphone.

I would like to be the first to call Mrs. Hodgekins from 5th grade to say “I TOLD YOU SO.” Maybe that’s just me.

Read on for some compelling arguments as to why teachers should be open to students using a calculator in class:

Builds Comfort with Technology

I know what you and most strict teachers are thinking:

“If students start using a calculator for every little thing, they’ll become completely dependent on technology. They won’t be able to figure things out on their own.”

Now let me ask you, how are you reading this post right now?

Are you using… *gasp* technology?

Turns out all of us are dependent on technology. If you depend on your car or the bus to get you to work, you’re dependent on technology.

If you use a computer and a phone to make money to pay your bills, you’re dependent on technology. Every business (with very few exceptions) uses technology to function. Feeling comfortable with technology is a crucial part of navigating adulthood.

My next question for teachers is, isn’t it your job to prepare students for adulthood? Technology isn’t evil in and of itself unless you’re Amish, so stop discriminating against calculators!

I don’t know about you, but villainizing calculators and praising pencils seems like superstition more than a real argument to me.

Promotes Accuracy

Let’s face it, the point of math class is to help students understand problems, troubleshoot, and find correct answers. Any way they can feel empowered to do that should be welcomed, right?

Say you don’t want to let students jump to their calculator first. That’s fair, it’s your classroom. But calculators can still be helpful in teaching students to verify their answers, and go back to troubleshoot if need be.

Math calculators can quickly validate a student’s hard work, or show them the need to fix something. Without a calculator, the only other way to do this is giving students a list of answers or making them wait till the teacher is ready.

Calculators aren’t just for cutting corners. They can reassure students that their work has paid off or encourage students to go back and try again.

Makes Math More Enjoyable

I think we can all agree math gets tedious at times. Hopefully, with the right encouragement, studying math can be enjoyed and not just endured.

Some students love doing basic multiplication, subtraction, and addition in their heads. They’re able to visualize numbers in their mind quickly and feel empowered when they do basic calculations their own. But many kids don’t feel this way.

Many students fall into the trap of comparing themselves to their classmates. Sometimes, students avoid class altogether so no one can see them struggle with mental math.

Calculators take the pressure off students who would otherwise beat themselves up over the little things.

Shifts the Focus to What Matters

To build on that last point, using a calculator helps every student free up brain power for larger math concepts.

No matter how much a student loves doing algebra in their head, they’re going to need to learn more than just algebra to successfully navigate life outside of school.

For the students without flawless number sense, being allowed to use a calculator removes anxiety and wasted time over the details. This gives them the time, energy, and confidence to focus on more important theories and strategizing. The deeper into math they get, the more important this will be.

Forcing students to hash out answers long form, by hand, takes away time they could be using to ask deeper questions. So while you’re debating whether or not using a calculator is harmful or not, you should also ask yourself:

Would I rather my students be perfect at adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing? Or would I prefer students get excited about learning larger concepts, and ask why what they’re doing works?

The fact is, most adults outside the classroom have access to calculators anyway. Even Google can be a calculator if you need it to be. With that in mind, it seems obvious that outlawing calculators is an outdated policy.

Is Using a Calculator Cheating?

So, what’s the solution here? Show your work. Cite your sources.

I’m kidding. Ultimately, it’s up to each math teacher and each school to enforce the age-old calculator ban or not. But you have to admit, these are some pretty compelling arguments for using a calculator in class.

To recap, using a calculator (regular or graphing):

  • helps students feel comfortable with technology
  • can help certain students find math more enjoyable
  • promotes accuracy by letting students check their answers on their own
  • removes tedious busy work, allowing students to focus on math concepts that matter.

Teachers want to empower their students, and hopefully get them excited about a lifetime of doing mathematics. If allowing calculators keep more kids passionate about math, why not?

We’d love to hear what you think.

For more blog posts about math and calculators, check out our blog right here.

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