Don't blame bad maths on the calculator

Joseph Kelly

Damon Runyon, Broadway's chronicler, once passed on to his readers an invaluable piece of advice. Some day, he said, a man will come up to you and show you an unopened deck of cards. He will then bet you that the jack of hearts will jump out of the pack and squirt cider in your ear. Runyon's recommendation? Never take that bet, because you will, without fail, end up with an earful of cider and a lighter wallet.

I got the same feeling with a calculator that a rep showed me recently. Among its talents were everything your aspiring mathematician might wish, including some very fancy juggling with fractions that left me baffled. Had the rep suggested that I ask it to whistle Dixie I would have refused. I had to decline his suggestion that it join my mathematics resources, not only because of Runyon's warning, but because it was too rich for whatever blood is left in my devolved budget. I have nothing against calculators, but I seem to belong to a dwindling band.

Her Majesty's inspectors have issued Improving Mathematics Education 5-14. It is colour coded, significantly, with a red edge, for it signals danger I think for practices that some schools have come to take for granted. It is an interesting and informative document for a number of reasons, not least because it comes as close to issuing instructions as I have seen for years in documents of its kind. It contains, too, a number of references to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study which showed that Scottish pupils' use of calculators in maths lessons was higher than in any other country, with overuse most marked in S1-S2.

The calculator is a favourite donkey to pin the tail on to explain why basic skills may not be what they should be. David Blunkett recently has leapt aboard that particular carousel south of the border, while HMIs here have carefully skirted any value judgments that might be set in stone. They adopt a muted tone on calculators as far as primary schools are concerned, and in this issue have a foot in both camps, not quoting from the 5-14 guidelines that pupils be given calculators "according to their differing calculating abilities and the complexity of the calculation involved", but reminding us that they "should not provide unnecessary support, or substitute for the development of personal efficiency".

This seems good middle of the road stuff, unless you are of the maths teaching genre in S1-S2 that throws out calculators the way my old maths teacher used to skiff out jotters round the room. Primaries come out relatively unscathed, but I fear that HMI's warnings may carry a backlash. The hint in the document of the mandatory could mean that, while calculators will not disappear overnight in primary schools, their batteries may be removed for longer periods. In any event, their use may be drastically restricted. This may not be very wise, but teachers and headteachers are like that.

There is a middle way. Letting children play with calculators (and leaving for later more detailed learning) means that they are on the way to coming to terms with dealing with the kind of machines that are going to litter their lives and the economies in which they will live. The silicon revolution dominates everyone's life and we do our children a disservice if we withhold a vital component of that revolution from them for too long. The Cockcroft report (how long ago?) suggested that using calculators had not produced any adverse effect on basic computational ability.

The international study has shown that the Pacific Rim took the prizes. Clearly, no comments were made about the generalised use of calculators, but I would make a (hopefully) educated guess that their use would not be restricted in the Pacific Rim only to secondary schools. That same rim contains in it someone called the kyoikumama, the feared and terrifying "education mama", intent on ensuring the educational success of her child. I would bet she has made sure her junior reckoner is ready for calculators. And I think I might get cider in my ear on that one.

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Joseph Kelly

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