The calculator cannot think, and it cannot make decisions about what numbers or operations need to be used. The quality of the output of a calculator is wholly dependent on the input (Reys, Arbaugh, Joyner, 2001).
Calculators were first introduced into K-8 mathematics classrooms nearly 30 years ago, but their use in schools is still very controversial. To achieve a balanced mathematics curriculum (a curriculum that focuses on conceptual understanding, computational and procedural fluency, and problem solving skills), we must develop students’ confidence and understanding of when and how to use these skills and tools. The fundamental issue is about fluency with computation which is a requirement for higher order thinking. Let us agree on the following:
ª calculators should not be used as a replacement for learning basic mathematical concepts;
ª calculators can be beneficial to student learning;
ª calculators can motivate students and give confidence to those anxious about mathematics;
ª mastery of basic mathematical skills in the elementary grades is crucial to success in later grades.
Whether or not calculators should be used in grades K-6 is a shadow of the real issue. That is, the issue is not if students should use calculators in the classroom, but rather how and when should calculators be used appropriately. Teachers and students must be taught to use the technology to enhance and support the students’ development of computational fluency. In fact, calculator use for some students may lead to computational fluency, while in others it may not.
ª In third grade, having short timed multiplication drills/assessments without calculators is appropriate to develop the fluency, AND it is appropriate to use calculators to explore repeated addition to develop a conceptual understanding of multiplication.
ª In sixth grade, doing addition with fractions with unlike denominators is a generalizable skill that should be practiced without technology is appropriate, AND using calculators to generalize operations with fractions (e.g., when is the quotient a/b greater than a?) is also appropriate.
ª In eighth grade, it is appropriate to have students plotting points to explore non-linear growth patterns without technology, AND it is appropriate for students to use to graphing calculators to explore the impact of the parameters of variables on a function.
No one wants students to become dependent on calculators rather than their own thinking. The best way to avoid this is for students and teachers to capitalize on such appropriate use of calculator technology to expand students’ mathematical understanding, not to replace it.
In order to support appropriate use in classroom, it is recommended that NJASK assessments have a balance between non-calculator items and calculator items in grades 3-6. A simple 50-50 ratio of items (noncalculator to calculator) will demonstrate to NJ classroom teachers and students that appropriate use of calculators should be our goal.