Calculators Redux

This week in Algebra II we are studying matrices. Remember matrices? Long rows and columns of numbers you must painstakingly add or divide or labor through somehow. With two rows by three columns, we took time to calculate each equation. But as the matrices got a little more loaded, teacher Tricia Colclaser said, “Get out your calculator.”

Several people commented on the blog last week about the use or possible overuse of calculators in American math classes. I asked Tricia Colclaser to expand on her calculator philsophy.

Here’s what she said:

It helps to use the benefits of technology, particularly when the algebraic work gets very combersome (like with bigger matrices). Once students get lost in the actual work, it loses its meaning almost.

But they aren't supposed to be a replacement for algebra: "Students need to be comfortable learning both."

Coclaser said she likes to teach the math first, and then use the calculator for trickier applications -- when the numbers get messy or when computing would take hours by hand. For example, she said, she will teach students to graph a sine or cosine curve on paper and then use the calculator to show how to model the motion of a ferris wheel.

The end-of-year standardized exam allows calculators throughout. (A possible reason for the 90 percent pass rate?) But Colclaser designates sections of her tests to be calculator-free and she sometimes will write "C" or "NC" next to problems on work sheets to show when they should hit the on button.

She said calculators are one way to make math class more relevant to a real world filled with computers. "If they have technology available to them, we should teach them how to use it," she said.

If you are interested in some other perspectives, I wrote a story on the 40th anniversary of the calculator last year. There is plenty of research out there, including a study by Tom Loveless from Brookings Institution showing that some countries that excel on international math exams, including China and Singapore, start using calculators later in the curriculum.

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  October 6, 2008; 7:00 PM ET  | Category:  Class Time , Math Literacy
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Do I remember matrices... I got all the matrices I wanted when I took Linear Algebra last semester.

Tricia's strategy for teaching with and without calculators makes sense to me. I agree with her that it is very important to get the basics down first, and to understand how to do things. After that, it makes sense to use a calculator (or a computer) to do the number crunching, so that you can focus on the bigger picture and understand that too.

Posted by: UVaEE09 | October 7, 2008 12:38 PM | Report abuse

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