TED Conference: Teach Math, Not Calculating

As calculators have enabled a shift away from number crunching to problem solving, graphing calculators have become standard in the classroom and in state assessment. And the use of the devices have become topic of discussion at a recent TED Conference on math instruction.

Use of graphing calculators was first allowed on the SAT and Advanced Placement Calculus exams in 1994. They are now able to be used on sections of the ACT, AP Chemistry and AP Statistics, and are required on many state assessments, writes Anna M. Phillips at the New York Times.

Christine Betaneli, a spokeswoman at the Educational Testing Service, said:

“We’ve included the calculator to reduce the emphasis on computation and to focus more attention on reasoning skills.”

However, Michael Holmes, who teaches AP Chemistry at the High School of American Studies at Lehman College in the Bronx, noticed a lack of complexity in the multiple-choice portion of the chemistry exam — on which calculators are not allowed.

“Where calculators are permitted, in the free-response section, he finds less emphasis on memorization than when he took the exam nearly two decades ago.”

Also, Holmes remarked that he believes calculators can trip up even the high-achieving students who put too much faith in whatever answer comes back at them.

Cara Lin Bridgman, an American teaching in Taiwan, used the term “calculator management” when describing the math class she took at the University of Tennessee.

“We learned how to control the calculator to make it solve the problems, but it doesn’t mean I know how to solve the problems or what the calculator is doing.”

J. Michael Shaughnessy, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, believes it is up to curriculum designers and teachers to make their use of the devices “selective and strategic,” as the organization’s position paper on calculators states, writes Phillips.

“You will hear some teachers saying, ‘Oh, I can’t use it that much.’ Those instances are going to become less over time. There’s just too much momentum, and eventually those of us who are that age will retire.”