From PARENTS magazine, September 1998, pp. 229-230.
Section on: Back-to-school education: Answers to your questions about your child and school
Question: Should a second-grader be using a calculator?
By Liz Rusch
Q: I observed my daughter's second-grade math class recently and was upset to see the kids using calculators. How will she learn to do basic math if she uses a calculator in class?
A: "Calculators in a second-grade classroom do not mean that children aren't learning elementary math facts," says Donald Dessart, Ph.D., a professor of mathematics and education at the University of Tennessee, in Knoxville. "On the contrary, calculators can boost basic skills by letting kids check their pencil-and-paper work, learn how to estimate, and work on problems that would be too complex for them to try without help."
In 1986, Dr. Dessart and a colleague reviewed 79 studies that compared the basic math skills of students in classes that used calculators with those of students in classes that did not. They found that students with access to calculators actually did slightly better on tests of basic skills-a point or two on a 100-point scale.
Still, you should make sure calculators are being used properly in your daughter's class. Ask the teacher if she still expects children to memorize the basics, like multiplication tables. The answer should be yes. Then find out in what context the students are using calculators. "If the children depend on calculators to add three plus four, that's a problem," says Dr.Dessart. A more reasonable use, he says, is for kids to estimate the cost of buying three items at one price and five items at another price, and then use a calculator to check their answer.
Calculators also make it easier for kids to explore number patterns. For instance, a second-grader might use a calculator to discover that adding two even numbers will always result in an even-numbered answer. And adding any number over and over on the calculator can clarify the connection between addition and multiplication.
Another reason teachers include calculators in math class is to help kids learn to use them judiciously, says Mary Lindquist, Ph.D., professor of math education at Columbus State University, in Columbus, Georgia, and past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. "We know that kids are going to use calculators in their everyday lives, so we have an obligation to teach them when it's appropriate to use them and when it's not," she says.
You can support wise calculator use at home too. For instance, Dr.Lindquist suggests explaining to your child that although you use a calculator to do your taxes, it's still easier to do simple calculations, like computing a tip, in your head.
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