Poor numeracy standards pre-date modern technology, SCAA research has concluded. Angela Walsh reports. Employers believe young people's poor standards of numeracy can be attributed to the use of calculators. But the precise nature of calculator use and numeracy skills in British schools is complex.
To find out more, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has commissioned research on calculator use and standards of numeracy. In response to requests from schools the work will lead to the provision of guidance on the effective use of calculators and on effective teaching of number skills, and on diagnostic assessment of these skills.
The research carried out among employers found that although their principal concern is not over their numeracy requirement, they are worried about recruits' over-reliance on calculators and lack of mental arithmetic skills.
They are particularly concerned about employees having a lack of "feel for number", which they believe leads to an over-reliance on calculator results even when they fly in the face of common sense.
Young employees' opinions about why they were deficient in certain arithmetical skills were different. They revealed that they had found GCSE mathematics too theoretical and believed it was far easier to pick up number skills quickly in the workplace.
This theory - that young people may grasp mathematics more firmly when it is rooted in an applied context - is confirmed by the preliminary conclusions of an SCAAUnderstanding British Industry Research project which suggests that pupils benefit from activities such as industry visits relating their work to practical applications in business and in industry.
The international research review commissioned by SCAA on calculator use and availability for 5 to 14-year-olds found mental arithmetic was key to the development of number sense and an ability to carry out successful calculations. This is echoed in research on effective teaching of numeracy carried out for SCAA by the University of London, which indicates that particular attention should be paid to mental calculation, as well as to developing estimating and approximating skills.
Calculator use, it concludes, cannot be linked directly to poor performance in mental arithmetic in this country because our poor national performance actually predates the wide availability of calculators. Effective calculator use is a complex issue, embracing both teaching approaches and the nature of the curriculum. However, it observed that in many countries, including Great Britain, mental calculation is not taught to the extent recommended in the national curriculum.
A further study by SCAA investigated whether the use of calculators impairs ability in mental arithmetic. It found pupils in schools were taught to use calculators sensibly and appropriately.
All the schools surveyed integrated calculator use into the curriculum, emphasised how to use them sensibly, and ensured that estimating, checking and approximating skills were taught. They all also taught pupils about the contexts in which calculator use was prohibited - findings that were confirmed by interviewing and shadowing pupils.
However, the research suggests that teachers have only limited knowledge about how effective use of the calculator can promote higher levels of achievement. Very few schools had policies on calculator use. The study stressed the need for guidance for teachers.
Follow-up work on numeracy in 1996-97 will include further meetings of teacher groups prior to the production of guidance on effective numeracy teaching, and further work on calculator technology in examinations.
Guidance on effective use of calculators will be developed by teachers and others with experience in the field.
Angela Walsh is professional officer for mathematics at the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority