Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Blessing and curse of the calculator

(From November 2010)

While tutoring math students in the North Shore, I've observed the "blessing and curse of the calculator". As they do problems in Algebra, Trigonometry, Calculus, and other courses, kids often refer to their calculator. There are pros and cons. Why?

When I was a young math student (a long, long, time ago!), a calculator was a novelty. A luxury. A nice graduation gift. A helpful device. But, it couldn't be relied upon. Why? Many weren't sophisticated enough for certain problems. (Plus, in many cases, teachers would not permit them.) 
Today, even simple calculators are incredibly powerful. Last week, a calculus student in Highland Park quickly input the coefficients of 3 quadratic equations. Presto, he had the solution. I watched a trigonometry student quickly solve area problems and utilize law of cosines with the help of her calculator.. At the same time, while working with a 6th grader in Glencoe, I cringed as the kid reached for the calculator to solve a division problem!  (Could he not try long division by hand?). He came up with the right number---but, wrong decimal point. (He had pushed the wrong button!).... 
Today, calculators are quite affordable. (And, teachers allow students to use them.).  Nevertheless, while a calculator is incredibly useful to perform complex tasks, kids should consider the old school method---pencil and paper----to solve simple equations.  They need the practice!

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