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Topic: Pocket Calculators -- Good or Evil?
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 13,020
Registered: 12/3/04
Pocket Calculators -- Good or Evil?
Posted: Feb 16, 1999 6:32 PM
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[Note: Received from the East and West Coasts ... with thanks.]

San Francisco Chronicle, Tuesday, February 16, 1999, p. A12


Teachers can't figure how miracle device has been declared the devil's tool

By Steve Rubenstein, Staff Writer

Pocket calculators are bad again, the school pooh-bahs have decreed from on

Once, pocket calculators were good. Then they were bad. Then they became
good again. Now, once more, they are bad. You almost need a pocket
calculator to keep track of how the CA state Board of Education feels about
pocket calculators.

In its new guidelines for public school teachers, the state has declared
that pocket calculators are preventing students from learning basic math

Although the formula doesn't seem to add up for many Bay Area elementary
students and teachers, the state now recommends that students not use
calculators until sixth grade.

"It is imperative that students in the early grades be given every
opportunity to develop a facility with basic arithmetic skills without
reliance on calculators," say the new guidelines, formally called the
Mathematics Framework for California Public Schools.

"Evidence has accumulated showing the ill-effects of calculator usage in
the schools."

If there is any such evidence, the third-grade students in Room 206 at
Jefferson School in San Francisco don't know what it is.

They had their red-and-blue calculators out this week, in defiance of the
new decree. Fortunately, none was expelled for calculator possession, and
teacher Lynne Zolli, an earnest and imaginative veteran of the chalkboard,
was not sent to the corner by the principal, who was observing the heresy
from a seat in the front row.

Zolli's math lesson involved pencils, calculators, chalkboards, numbers and
a whole lot of thinking.

For the better part of an hour, her students tried to figure out how to go
about adding up the total number of letters in the names of all the class

There were 32 names on the board, and some of them had 10 letters in them.
The answer was going to be a big number, the students realized. Some
students arranged the names in groups and added the groups. Some found
pairs of names that added up to 10 letters, and counted by tens. Some added
the total in their heads. Some used calculators.

"I like them," said Susan Kane, 9, pressing the keys on her standard issue
TI-108. "They're good for some things and not so good for some things. And
sometimes you get messed up and press the wrong key and have to start

Karalan Morthole, 9, said a kid has to remember that a calculator doesn't
know what it's doing.

"You're the one punching in the numbers," she said. "You have to know when
you punched in 54 instead of 45, or you'll get the wrong answer."

After all the letters in the students' names were added, the answer was 182
on the chalkboard, on paper and on the calculator screens. There were no
apparent injuries.

Then Zolli asked her students how they would make "100" appear on their
calculators if various keys were broken, such as the 1 key or the 0 key or
the + key. More dangerous thinking ensued.

As the recess bell sounded, Zolli rounded up the calculators and put them
on a shelf with the plastic cubes and the paints and other contraband.

"Calculators are part of the culture," she said. "They're everywhere.
They're built into phones and watches. Keeping them away from kids seems
draconian and ridiculous."

Another math problem that Zolli's calculators can solve is 1999 minus 1992.
The answer is seven, which means that it was only seven years ago that the
state issued its 1992 math framework hailing calculators as demigods,
manna, salvation and the wave of the future.

"Calculators," said the 1992 framework, "are the electronic pencils of
today's world. In every grade, calculators can be issued to students just
as textbooks are."

Calculators, those guidelines said, should be "made available for homework,
in class activities and tests."

When the gadgets first caught on, in the late 1960s and early '70s, they
cost $100 or so and were regarded as a minor miracle in an age when
students still toted slide rules in leather hip holsters. In the ensuing
years, they were banned from many classrooms for making calculations too

As their price fell to practically nothing, calculators returned to favor.
Today, most Bay Area curriculum experts seem to be on the side of the

"You have to learn to use them," said Victor Gee, math curriculum
coordinator for the Oakland school district. "The controversy revolves over
to what degree you use it. But it's stupid not to use them."

"To make a blanket (ban), what kind of dumb statement is that? There is a
lot of politics in it," he said.

Cheryl Lilhanand, in charge of math curriculum for West Contra Costa County
schools, said it appears that the "pendulum has swung again."

All teachers know there is more to teaching math than teaching numbers, she

"You don't want to use them too early, but at some point in time you have
to get down to reality. Calculators are what people use today," she said.

Math experts, who often arrive at the same answer when doing their times
tables, were unable to agree about the use of calculators.

The president of the Mathematics Council, representing thousands of
California teachers, called the new framework "narrow, biased and

But the new framework, approved recently by the board of education on a
10-to-0 vote, is part of a back-to-basics backlash spawned by declining
test scores.

Board member Janet Nicholas said the guidelines were "about more than basic

The state board has approved a tough list of grade-by-grade benchmarks, or
minimum skills, that students should learn in each grade. Second-graders
are supposed to memorize their times tables, and the board now believes
that calculator use interferes with that task.

Despite the decree from Sacramento, teachers and school districts are
unlikely to make any immediate changes in their math teaching, or to
conduct any mass roundups and burnings of calculators in school lunch

But the framework casts dire warnings about "the possibility of doing
immense, perhaps incalculable harm" with calculator use. And, in an eerie
passage, the framework recalls that "some went so far as to recommend that
in every grade calculators can be issued to students just as textbooks are"
without mentioning that it was the previous state framework that made just
such a recommendation.

"The extensive reliance on calculators runs counter to the goal of having
students practice using . . . basic arithmetic skills," the new framework
said. "For example, it should not be the case that the simple addition 5/11
+ 3/5 can only be done with the help of a calculator."

For the record, the answer without a calculator is 1 and 3/55, which is the
same as the answer with a calculator.


The new California guidelines for math recommend that calculators not be
used in the classroom before sixth grade because:

-- Understanding basic math concepts such as addition, subtraction,
multiplication and division requires that students be fluent in basic
computational skills. For example, fifth-grade students should be able to
add 5/11 + 3/5 without the use of a calculator.

-- Students are expected to learn critical thinking and be able to make
mental calculations and estimates. Extensive reliance on calculators runs
counter to that goal.
For more information on the guidelines and state math standards, consult the
state Department of Education website at www.cde.ca.gov .
Source: California Department of Education
©1999 San Francisco Chronicle
Here are the addresses for the CA Math Standards and the Framework:

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Fax: (618)453-4244
Phone: (618)453-4241 (office)
E-mail: jbecker@siu.edu

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