Original Digital Sin

About a decade ago, the New York Times ran an opinion piece in which the authors argued for a renewed emphasis on the traditional algorithms for arithmetic. In particular, the authors claimed and lamented an increasing use of calculators as a supposed alternative to proper instruction in the algorithms:

The idea is that competence with algorithms can be substituted for by the use of calculators, and reformists often call for training students in the use of calculators as early as first or second grade.

Keith Devlin wrote a snarky response, including an accusation of straw manning:

No they do not. I do not know a single teacher who advocates calculator use in the second grade. I can’t say with certainty that you won’t find a self-proclaimed “reformist” who has made such a call, but it definitely is not “often”.

For Australians then being fed ACARA’s nonsense, there wasn’t much indication of straw in the Times article, and Burkard and I wrote a snarky re-response. For those still keeping score, ACARA’s new Curriculum has the following as its very first, and mandated, content description for Foundation (Prep):

name, represent and order numbers including zero to at least 20, using physical and virtual materials and numerals [emphasis added]

Thus it begins. But let’s go to the beginning beginning.

In 1988, Nerida Ellerton and Ken Clements wrote an article, Reshaping School Mathematics in Australia 1788–1988 (paywalled). Near the end of their article, Ellerton and Clements discuss the “national consciousness” that began developing in the 1960s. They note the role of the Curriculum Development Centre, an ACARA-like Authority that existed in the 1970s and 1980s, and the Mathematics Curriculum and Teaching Program established by the CDC. In 1987, the MCTP coordinated the development of a National Statement on the Use of Calculators for Mathematics in Australian Schools:

Promoted and then published as a pamphlet by the AAMT, the Statement carried the express endorsements of the CDC, of all state and territory education authorities, and of the National Catholic Education Commission. Ellerton and Clements quote the first, foundational recommendation of the Statement:

… as far as resources allow, teachers should ensure that all students use calculators at all year levels (K-12) [emphasis in original]

Thus the beginning began.

4 Replies to “Original Digital Sin”

  1. One of my students today was counting on her fingers; I quietly mentioned to her that this is the only calculator that you can take into any exam.

  2. Ok, so I think I may be in a minority here. I know that it is important that students learn their maths facts but if a student is struggling (at any level) to do the arithmetic and is disliking maths because of this then I say let them use a calculator. BUT and this is a big BUT teach them to use the calcualtor properly. Make them write down what they do as they do it and think about the answer the calculator gives. Does the answer make sense? Write down the answer in a sentence. I am not advocating just pushing the buttons (which is what much of VCE and the use of CAS calculators seems to me) but using the calculator responsibly as a tool for learning.

    1. Interesting.

      (Honest question): Are you suggesting that by allowing a student to use a calculator and therefore experience more “success” in their work that their dislike of the subject will decrease and, perhaps therefore their willingness or ability to “learn their maths facts” improves?

      A genuinely honest question. I know many teachers who will argue such a case.

      I’m not one of them, favoring different interventions (which are unfortunately more time intensive) but that doesn’t mean I can’t try to understand the argument.

    2. Vicky, the more minority opinions here the better. Although I’m not sure you’re in the minority on this one. I don’t have a clear or strong opinion of what to do with a drowning student, and it has to be very much case by case.

      My strong opinion is to not have such an idiotic curriculum and (anti)educational culture, ensuring that so many students will be drowning. Everything about ACARA, everything about AAMT, everything about MERGA, everything about every maths ed faculty in the country, is so damn stupid and so damn poisonous.

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