We’ve all heard a similar story:

*“The power was out so the cash register wasn’t working. My bill was $13.73 so I hand the kid behind the counter a $20 bill. Do you think he could figure out how much changed to give me? No way! What are they teaching kids in school these days?”*

These “experiences” are retold all the time; often starting with, “These calculators are ruining our young peoples’ minds!” The problem isn’t with the use of calculators, but with their inappropriate use!

As a mathematics educator for over 25 years, I’m also alarmed with the seemingly lack of general mathematical understanding of our populace - not just in our young people. Comments such as “I never did understand math! I never use algebra - what a waste of my time in high school.” are commonly heard from mature adults who attended school in the BC (before calculators) days! So, if my generation, who didn’t use technology, feels this way, why do calculators get so much blame for today’s generation’s lack of math proficiency?

To make sure the calculators are used appropriately, I have devised a three question test I use before using any technology for an activity:

**What is the primary mathematical objective of the activity?**

If I lose sight of the mathematical goal for the lesson, the students won’t know what mathematics they were suppose to learn. It becomes a “Golly, gee whiz, wasn’t that fun!” activity with no connections to other tasks have been made, no building on prior learning, and, consequently, no learning of the intended objective.**What can be done without the technology?**

This may seem a bit odd, but I need to ask myself this question to be sure I’m not using technology just for the sake of using it. Since I learned all of my undergraduate mathematics in the BC days, I know 99% of what I teach can be taught without a graphing calculator.**How can the technology enhance the conceptual understanding of the intended objective?**

This is the most important question. If I can’t answer this question with a solid educational reason, then I don’t use technology! Not every lesson or activity needs technology. Sometimes when introducing a mathematical concept such as plotting points on a coordinate plane, a non-technology approach is best. However, after the introduction phase, when students need to use plotting on a coordinate plane as a tool to reach a more complex, abstract intended objective, then the graphing calculator is a must!

Just as we don’t blame the car for a person’s lack of mechanical knowledge of how to change a tire, we shouldn’t place blame on the calculators for student’s lack of mathematical understanding. Calculators can be valuable tools to build conceptual understanding, but only if used appropriately.

So, what are we teaching kids today? If we’re using the calculator appropriately in our study of mathematics – more than they’ve ever learned before!

Image from Flickr