49For young math students, there is a debate about how often they should be allowed to use a calculator.  On one side of the argument, people say that handheld calculators should not be used at all until a certain age; at an arbitrary level, now students have “earned the right” or are “old enough” to use calculators for their math homework.  Looking at the other extreme, some home school or classroom teachers let their students use calculators for everything.  What is the proper way to use calculators when teaching (or learning) math?

There isn’t much debate about what can happen when kids to use the calculator too much, too early.  They become dependent on it, and they get mathematically lazy. If allowed to grab the calculator for a simple operation: 13 X 3, students can get sloppy and after making a mistake, assume the answer on the screen is the correct one.

There are reasons, however, why math students should use calculators.  This can be enabled by classroom teachers or home school teachers correctly to enhance four aspects to the developmental learning of math.

Calculator Use Tip #1:  Calculators can help in demonstrating concepts

Being able to key in complicated numbers and operations is sometimes an advantage to learning number patterns or rules.  The calculator can be used to prove that larger answers result when multiplying by increasing numbers; smaller answers result when multiplying by amounts between zero and one.  Teachers can show patterns to repeating decimals and their relationships to fractions.  When exploring linear equation function graphs, students can input different slope values or coefficients to see how the graphs change.  The speed of the tool greatly enhances the discovery of patterns or numeric rules.  This will be an advantage in the study of Algebra, for example.

Calculator Use Tip #2: Calculators can help to apply real world applications

When students need measure dimensions and apply concepts of area and volume, for example, they can use a calculator.  In the real world, things are not measured in whole numbers; dimensions are in reality messy to work with and inexact.  In learning a concept, students should first work with simple numbers.  Then they move on into decimals and fractions as they encounter examples of real measurements.  Studying area, kids will have to work with rational amounts, and solving problems will force them to make calculations quickly and as accurately as possible.  The calculator can help with this, and, as part of the learning, students will discover the value of decimal places and significant digits.

Calculator Use Tip #3: Calculators can help in estimation

When doing a measurement problem where the distances are inexact, the calculator can help with the answer, but how does the student know it is correct?  This is an opportunity for estimation skills.  If the rectangular board measures 12.67 inches by 3.14 inches and you need to find its area, how do you know that your answer cannot be the number showing on your calculator: 72.345 ?  Estimate by rounding the dimensions to 13 by 3 inches, and realize that your answer should be slightly more than 39 square inches.  Using calculators is a prime opportunity to reinforce the skill of estimating your answer first, then doing the calculation.

Calculator Use Tip #4: Calculators will be used in the work of work

Isolated in the classroom or at home, math students often wonder how their current unit of study applies to their real world.  By being allowed to use the calculator properly in their math class, they will gain an appreciation for the great tool it is.  Calculators speed up the problem solving process, but cannot think for themselves.  They are only as accurate as the person whose fingers pressed the keys and used the proper operations.  If correctly developed, the use of calculators in school will teach children the real world skill of using the right tool for the job.  When working for a boss or for themselves in their own business, students in the future will need to properly analyze a situation, figure out a strategy for solving a problem, use the proper tools, develop a way to check the answer, and clearly communicate the results.  Handheld calculators or computer applications or programs will be an integral part of this process.  The classroom experiences with a calculator will help students to become comfortable and competent with this powerful learning tool.

Like any tool, calculators are only machines that might be misused.  But if students are taught how to use them in ways that improve their future success, these technology tools will not be a crutch.  Test to see if the math student can get the general idea of the concept by estimating the answer or can verbalize the problem solving sequence.  After that, they can use the calculator to do the number crunching or experiment with different outcomes.  A good teacher can then expect his students to be able to justify their results.  The calculator is an integral part of this learning and thinking process.

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