Why calculators should be banned.
“Sir, there’s a fraction in it. Have I got it wrong?”
“Sir, what do I do with this fraction one?”
“Sir, I get confused when there’s a fraction.”
All these phrases are far too common in my year twelve class at the moment. We’ve just finished c1 and are doing some past papers, and I’m fairly worried by the way some of them baulk at fractions. This isn’t a problem that is solely theirs though. Some of my year 13s sometimes have trouble with fractions too. It’s not an isolated problem either. I think it’s symptomatic of the “calculator culture” which we live in.
Students of all ages have become far too reliant on the infernal contraptions! My year 13s think I’m obsessed with triangles (so do my year 10s, 11s and 12s. Perhaps I am?! They are amazing shapes with endless possibilities though.). The reason for my year 13s is that I try to encourage them to calculate trig functions using triangles, rather than using calculators.
“Why? When you’re allowed a calculator in an exam?”
Because it’s quicker, because there’s less chance of error, and because it will ultimately make you a better mathematician.
This isn’t a problem that is limited to the sixth form either. I was observing a year 9 lesson yesterday on pie charts. The class are quite bright, and the tasks involved dividing 360 (ugh, degrees) by some nice numbers like 90, 60 and 12. When one of the girls near me reached for her calculator to divide 360 by 60 I took it off her. She looked at me in shock and I simply asked “what’s 360 divided by 60?” she said “6” without even thinking. I then asked her why she had reached for the calculator and she said “because it was there.” I then circulated the room and all the pupils were at it.
Recently I wrote a post on multiplication methods which was inspired by a twitter chat on the subject and itself inspired a further chat. During one of them the someone inevitably suggested “just use a calculator”.
I don’t agree. I think calculators are responsible for a major decline in basic maths skills. I think they are responsible for creating lazy A-level mathematicians. And I’m sure they will have cost many gcse students many marks in exams.
A while ago the government announced a ban on the use of calculators in primary maths tests. Perhaps I should have written this then. I thought about. I’m in complete agreement on this one. I’d go further and at least encourage against them for most things across all key stages. I don’t allow my pupils to use them unless it’s necessary. I want them to be fluent in the maths, not good at following instructions to type stuff into a calculator.