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Study dismisses calculator harm

Calculators have been cleared of inhibiting learning, Sarah Cassidy reports

USE OF calculators in primary schools does not damage pupils' reasoning skills, new research from Oxford University shows.

Eight and nine-year-olds were found to use the same mental strategies on arithmetical problems whether or not they used a calculator.

Ann Dowker, of Oxford's department of experimental psychology, looked at whether children's reasoning was altered or inhibited by calculator use. In the first of two studies, 20 eight-year-olds were set addition and subtraction tasks. They were asked to solve a new problem using a similar, solved problem to help them.

The child simply looked at the previous problem and its answer, and either worked out the new one with a calculator or with pencil and paper. Mode of presentation or calculation of the previous problem made no difference to the strategy used in solving the new problem.

In the second study, 40 seven-to-nine-year-olds solved word addition and subtraction problems such as: "There were 58 birds, and 23 flew away; how many were left?" Half the children used a calculator, and half used pencil and paper.

Calculator use was found to improve children's overall score, it eliminated mistakes in carrying and borrowing. However, the pattern of success with each type of problem remained the same, regardless of whether a calculator had been used.

Ann Dowker said: "Much controversy has surrounded the question of whether allowing children to use calculators promotes an "unthinking" approach to mathematical problems. However, little empirical research has addressed this question. The combined results of the two studies suggest that using a calculator does not of itself encourage an unthinking approach. It facilitates calculation, but does not inhibit, or for that matter facilitate, arithmetical reasoning."

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