# Too much reliance on calculators

Discussion in 'Secondary' started by Kevald, Jul 9, 2017.

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1. ### KevaldNew commenter

I will put this on the Mathematics subject forum as well but would be interested to hear views from the wider community since Mathematics is a core subject that everyone should be concerned about. I am a private Maths tutor, although I have worked in schools and colleges in the past, and have come across a number of otherwise bright students from 13 to 16 years of age, that seem to struggle with basic arithmetic and fractions e.g. 5 x 20, 2/9, etc. They have learned these skills in the past but have then used calculators ever since, so have then forgotten them. Manipulation of fractions in particular is useful skill for the GCSE exams, both Foundation and Higher, because it is often used in rearranging algebraic equations. I personally think that calculators should be more controlled in mathematics lessons and used only in those situations where to do otherwise would be needlessly tedious and distracting from the problem at hand. I won't go into too much detail but any Maths teacher will be identify those situations where a calculator is needed and when it is not. Quite often exercises can be produced or found where the numbers come out 'nicely' provided students look for shortcuts that make calculations easier like cancelling down fractions or 'doubling-and-halfing' e.g. 5 x 16 = 10 x 8 = 80, etc). And for those occasions where calculators are useful, students need to be made aware of how to use them properly e.g. when to use brackets, using the result of the previous calculation in the next calculation, checking whether answers are reasonable, or not, by using estimation, etc.

GCSE or not, the one thing that those children are likely to use in their lives is basic arithmetic. 5x20 is the same as 5x20p=£1, so you're saying to me that they have major flaws in their learning. The fundamentals of the problems that you recount lie with times tables, multiplication and division. Why they are attempting algebraic equations when these are not in place seems fundamentally wrong. I never forgot how to do them. They did not learn them properly in the first place. This year and last there has been no calculator paper at KS2. Possibly this is the reason why.

peter12171 likes this.
3. ### KevaldNew commenter

I agree with you that students need basic arithmetic for use in daily life, never mind it's usefulness as foundation for doing exams. I was just looking at it from the narrow point of view of a tutor, who is often called in to help initially struggling students who have exams to sit in a matter of months (sometimes even weeks). Many a time I have felt that I am teaching on two fronts at the same time i.e. both basic maths skills and GCSE mathematics for the pending exam. So I've often felt I was between the devil and the deep blue sea because basic arithmetic alone, of course, would not get them through the exams, but if that foundation was not there, or only partial, then they would also be unlikely to do as well as they could in the exams. Strangely, I've had students who could quite easily solve a quadratic equation but did not know how divide 5 by 8 using pen and paper. I had initially (but wrongly) assumed that to teach a Higher-set student basic arithmetic in this age range (13-16) would be teaching them to suck eggs. Now I know better. It was my assumption that they must have learned how to do basic arithmetic but then forgotten it because it's just easier to use a calculator, but that may not be the case. Perhaps they were either not taught properly, or they just weren't interested enough to master the skills at the time. I also never forgot how to do the basic arithmetic I was taught at school. A lot of it may have been rote-learning but it did stick,

4. ### modgepodgeEstablished commenter

Interesting. The dropping of the calculator paper from KS2 SATS happened a while ago, not just last year (when the new curriculum was tested for the first time). I would imagine the current 16 year olds probably were taught to use a calculator at primary school. However I think 13 year olds probably weren't.

The new curriculum has a much bigger focus on mental fluency with numbers, particularly the expectation on understanding and calculating with fractions is far higher than in the old curriculum. I teach y6, and post SATs spent a week teaching calculator skills as our local secondary mentioned it was something they felt children were generally weaker in y7 than they wanted. However I regularly saw y6s doing complicated decimal divisions with recurring decimals etc on paper, forgetting to use the calculator on the desk next to them!! I wonder if these children might be stronger on these basic maths skills than those educated on the old curriculum?

Don't forget that they used to have a mental maths test as part of the SATs. The calculator paper was only the last one of four. So if you couldn't succeed without a calculator at KS2 you weren't going to pass the maths SATs. A lot of time was spent on mental maths skills.

The OP and I both learned our maths with lots of practise. Teachers were allowed to give you pages of maths to practise your skills and imprint the methods that you learnt. Children recently are so pushed to show learning in every lesson that they aren't always given the time to practise their skills sufficiently for them remember them long term. I think that that is really the crux of the matter.

I think that the OP may be right. I haven't worked in secondary school, but some children going up to them may resort to using calculators (on their phones discretely if not officially) when their fundamental skills are not strong enough.

My strategy with poor students with imminent maths SATs would always be to ask, "What are you most worried about?" and teach those skills. The children themselves know what they are not as good at, and lack of confidence can trip them up even on the things that they do know well. My logic was if you could help them with what was making them most nervous, you would bump up their overall confidence for all their work, which at least would help them get the best mark that they were able to get at that time.

6. ### peter12171Star commenter

I will sound like a dinosaur, but I learnt the times tables by rote. Admittedly we didn't go into the hows and whys of it, but we learnt them (I'd argue that these things are such a basic necessity - the 5x20p equals £1 point made above - that the hows and whys aren't necessary). As a result I can do any multiplication or division based on the times tables up to twelve instantly. These things are just embedded in my memory.

pepper5 and galerider123 like this.

Despite having used statistical techniques ( line of regression, MAD etc) in forecasting and enjoying puzzles in New Scientist that could be solved using simultaneous equations I recognise that beyond simple maths most people will use a calculator rather than apply stuff learned at school and put pen to paper. I do not see the point in trying to get all children to pass a GCSE in maths if their driving ambition is to be a journalist, footballer or shop assistant. Why bang your head against a wall just because a student does not understand pythagoras or grasp how to multiply 3/5 by 7/8 without using a calculator designed to do it for you. If a pupil has decided by age 14 what career they would like to follow what they learn should be adjusted to suit their needs, not the weird Baccalaureate standard defined by an academic panel living in the past that believes reading and understanding Shakespeare is essential.

8. ### slstrong123New commenter

My gut feel is the new KS2 curriculum is producing students with more solid numeracy skills than previously.(I teach secondary school maths) and I find current year 7 have better numeracy skills than year 10 and 11. Fluency with a calculator is needed for GCSE but solid numeracy skills are needed first.

The year 7s that you got this year only had 2? years of the new curriculum, I doubt that the extent of difference is really measureable yet.

10. ### caterpillartobutterflyStar commenter

This same argument was made when I was doing my own GCSEs in the late 80s and scientific calculators were a recently acquired idea in schools.

When I started training as a maths teacher in the mid 90s, the same argument was happening then.

When I moved to middle schools and taught year 5-8, the upper schools said the same, even though we worked with them to create our calculator policies!

I then moved to primary spent ages and and ages as a year 6 teacher teaching children to use a calculator efficiently so they could do well in their SATs, it drove me mad. Those children will be A-Level/university age now, so possibly the ones the OP has tutored over the last couple of years.

Now I teach lower down in KS2 and have the (better imo) new curriculum, number skills, fluency and understanding are all much higher.

Be patient @Kevald better days are coming!