I’ve often found that students that do poorly in math are over reliant on calculators. The inability or unwillingness to perform mental arithmetic and instead rely on a calculator is holding many students back from doing better in math. A major problem with the way math is taught to students in Ontario is that students are allowed or even encouraged to use calculators from an early age. People have a tendency to take a path of least resistance and, thus, students from an early age prefer to use a calculator rather than do mental math, since it requires much less effort. I’ve met so many students that make it to high school and don’t know their times tables well, and are too accustomed to using a calculator when performing basic arithmetic. This greatly impedes their ability to work with numbers and solve more complex problems.
Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to teach many students from China and Korea who came to study in Canada in their teens. When I first started teaching students from East Asia, I was blown away by their ability to perform mental arithmetic and estimate. I soon found out that they were not allowed to use calculators in school. I think that this is one of the major reasons why students from East Asia are generally considered to be good at math. On the other hand, there is a significant overreliance on calculators in Ontario schools. Many students have little confidence in their ability to perform basic arithmetic and rely on their calculators to help them. I think that this is one of the reasons why students in Ontario are not performing as well as those in other parts of the world. Using a calculator for every math operation slows one down and increases the chances of making mistakes if numbers are not entered into the calculator correctly. Furthermore, using a calculator frequently prevents one from developing the ability to estimate, and this can affect ones ability to judge if the answer that they came to is within a reasonable range.
I’ve also noticed that math reasoning and problem solving ability is hindered if one lacks the ability to perform arithmetic without a calculator. It is almost as if students stop thinking when using a calculator. I discourage my students from using calculators. And I’ve noticed that those that take my advice and stop relying on their calculators see an improvement in their math reasoning ability and numeracy skills. It’s generally hard for students to overcome their dependence on a calculator, but I make an effort to stop them from reaching for a calculator when I see that the math operation is doable without the use of one.
There are obvious reasons for why many countries have chosen to not allow their students to use calculators in school. I think that it’s time for Canadian teachers to learn from these countries and minimize the use of calculators in schools. There is very little need for calculators before grade 11 and 12. Students should be discouraged from using calculators, so that they do not become dependent on them. Calculators should only be used on rare occasions when absolutely necessary.