Put Away That Calculator

A calculator is a tool that can be used in several ways. Most calculators basically do arithmetic operations, but there are calculators that can do much more; from calculating exponentiation and square roots to creating programs for algebraic formulas to graphing functions. A calculator can be a very good ally if you need to compute a math problem quickly. Calculators can also be a hindrance to a child’s learning if that child is just starting to learn math, particularly arithmetic.

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A young student who is learning arithmetic operations should not be using a calculator at all. He/she will need to learn the mechanics of how to add, subtract, multiply and divide with using only a pencil and paper. Once that student advances into more intermediate math and he/she has mastered arithmetic, then the use of a calculator will be sufficient.

Most of us can calculate certain addition and subtraction problems in our head. For more complex problems, such as “2586 + 384 + 58”, it is too complicated to compute this in our head, therefore giving us two options to come up with the answer: compute the answer on paper, or calculate the problem using a calculator. Anyone can put this problem in a calculator to see that the answer is “3028”, but what if a calculator was not handy? This is where having knowledge of the mechanics of arithmetic will come into play.

Calculating multiplication and division requires more advanced mechanics when solving complex problems such as “4789 x 103”. For division, a student is taught how to use long division when calculating complex division problem.

When learning pre-algebra, one may come across a problem such as “24 x 3 + 7 x 30”. Using a calculator, the answer comes to “282”, but if a calculator is not available, would a student know how calculate this? Yes, a calculator would be convenient for solving the above problem. However, a calculator does not teach a student the hierarchy of how this problem should be solved.

During my grade school years, I didn’t use a calculator until 5th or 6th grade, after I have mastered the mechanics of arithmetic. It is appalling to me that a student who is taking Algebra I does not know how to perform simple arithmetic operations with using just a pencil and paper. Students who fall into this situation are more than likely to struggle with their math and perhaps fail.

There will be situations when a calculator will become necessary, especially if a student is taking some sort of aptitude test or when a student has to use a calculator for an arithmetic operation in order to solve a more complex math problem. The bottom line is, a calculator should be used only if the student has already learned the mechanics of that particular application.

For students who rely heavily on a calculator to solve problems, but struggle with the mechanics, that is where a good math tutor will come in handy. A tutor will be able to determine a student’s strengths and weaknesses, then come up with a plan to help him/her improve on those mechanics. In the end, the student will feel more confident about solving math problems without using a calculator.

If you are a parent whose child uses a calculator way too much, tell that child to put away that calculator and let a math tutor show him/her how to solve math problems without it.

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