Exploit what we CAN do

15th March 1996 at 00:00
I wonder if those who deplore the use of calculators in schools are aware of the evidence available in this country that calculators can have very positive effects on children's number competence.

The CAN (Calculator Aware Number) Project set out specifically to find a number curriculum for the primary sector which would make full use of new technology. Already, as a prior survey showed, the standard written methods of schooling have largely been abandoned in employment in favour of calculators or methods appropriate to the task in hand. So the Project's initial guidelines advocated the dropping of standard methods, gave free calculator access from an early age and encouraged the development of mental calculating skills.

During its lifetime, from 1986 to 1992, CAN established a number of unexpected findings. Children worked with large numbers and negative numbers much earlier than in the traditional programme; they showed remarkable flexibility and creativity in their thinking and used calculators to explore mathematical topics such as decimals ,as well as for long multiplication, wanting to "find out how the calculator does it ".

Teachers, too, discovered that the calculator could be used as a teaching aid (for the learning of place value, for example) and as a diagnostic tool (understanding difficulties children may experience when trying to record something they have worked out in their head). A study is currently measuring the achievement of children from the project against that of children outside it.

There is genuine misgiving among those who fear and mistrust calculators in the light of their own experience and perspective. Many people claim that, having learned basic number skills at school, they lost "sharpness" when they began to use a calculator. A ban on calculator use has been called for at most educational levels including universities where it is claimed, I believe with some justice, that students no longer have basic skills because of calculator use an early age.

I question a ban on two counts: because a return to traditional basic skills may lead to any subsequent use of calculators having precisely the effect it had before, namely undermining previous competence; and because the traditional basic skills were those of a pre-calculator age. We need instead to determine the skills essential for competent calculator use and concentrate on those.

During the past 10 years part of my work has been with university students following degree courses other than mathematics who fear they will be unable to pass numeracy tests set by many prospective employers. In recent years students have increasingly told me that after entering secondary school and being allowed to use a calculator they never worked anything out for themselves again.

The CAN Project shows us the way ahead for our children: concentrate on the skills which are basic to competent calculator use instead of reverting to practices which no longer serve us well.

As one CAN teacher recently put it: "What I'd ban is bad use of calculators; I always tell my children that the best calculator they have is inside their own head." I appeal to teachers who following CAN practices to come forward and start a nucleus of people prepared to take children competently into the next century.

Janet Duffin lectures at the University of Hull Numeracy Centre. Details of the CAN Project can be obtained from her, or from Homerton College, Cambridge

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