Friday, February 15, 2013

Calculator wars and the skill of the general populace

The main thing I can say about the calculator wars (see articles below) is that the parallels to the grammar-checker and spell-check world are interesting. The rhetoric is much stronger. You can see, below, that the Texas Instrument people, who have millions at stake in selling calculators to every school child, are especially big on the word "tedious" to describe the kinds of math problems that turned millions of innocent children away from the field of math. In the same way spell-check and grammar-check have spared us from the tedium of knowing grammar, thus allowing us to do more writing, and give more people access to the wonderful world of Twitter and Facebook.

Here are some parallels between the development of the calculator (which is a bit ahead) and the development of spell-check grammar-check: we can see the love affair of a society with a little hand-held machine that seems to relieve us, as a culture, of so much tedious drudgery that we embrace it immediately without worrying about the costs (though I remember people objecting to the calculator, I remember much less resistance to spell-check/grammar-check). We can see our own failure to watch as children learn, essentially, to turn to the machine as soon as possible, at the expense of thinking about the problem, or using their heads when possible (one anecdote, in the Sheets article, tells of a student calculating the movement of a car that was parked...and using the calculator to get the wrong answer). We can see the inability of students to perform when no calculator (or spell-check/grammar-check) is available to them. We get the general feeling, within the culture, that "Johnny can't add", or, now, "Johnny can't spell." We get the occasional insistence that a possible solution is the withholding of technology in the earlier grades, until the student has developed some independence in solving problems and doing things oneself. We get the tech industry's defense of its tools as "merely tools" that aren't intended to think for people but are designed to relieve the drudgery and make a more level playing field, so that everyone, for example, can multiply 5489 X 6923, quickly. Do we need a level playing field in English education? I'm not sure, since writing is so thoroughly integrated into every field and some of these are pretty completely saturated with talent anyway (try to figure out if I'm being serious) or bring with them other problems, far more serious.

One thing that strikes me is that I'm not sure there's a national consensus one way or the other. So we old codgers think that, in general, ability to multiply and divide has decreased, or grammar is worse. Is that proven in any way? Is there a national consensus that we should withhold calculators for the first few years, as I infer that they do in some countries (I'm not really sure about this), and then, to what degree is this happening with spell-check/grammar-check? I watch kids growing up and they get directly on spell-check/grammar-check with no general oversight; word's programs are loaded on there the minute they type. But with grammar, the biggest change is this: I see a lot more of the informal writing of my young friends these days than I used to; I've become facebook friends with dozens of young people, left and right, who don't know from it's/its. So I see different stuff than people used to. This is a long way from proving that people know grammar less than they used to. Similarly, if young people instinctively grab for a calculator to figure out the tip in the restaurant, that doesn't mean they can't do it in their head, or even that that matters. It appears to me that they can't do it in their head, but that's different. I'd like to know if people are unable to give correct change for a twenty these days, or figure out a 20% tip. But I'm a little leery of just going with my impressions.

Back to the articles: I'm left with several feelings. First, we've been here before. Second: we tech advocates may be made to feel that we are to some degree merely "tools" for people who get clear benefit from the advance of technology (some have a dog in this fight, in other words). Three: society is in trouble; you can only learn so much, and we need to add, and we need to learn how to use little machines, and we may be failing at both. I don't know the right answer. I'm with the vast majority of old codgers who say, nobody knows its/it's your/you're there/their/they're anymore. It's because they think they don't have to learn. I of course am accused of having a bad attitude.

Using a calculator from an early age contributes to the general belief that it's a necessary tool in the getting of the answer. Students always reach for the calculator if they are expected to find the answer.

The belief that "the calculator will solve it" leads to the belief that "I don't need to figure that out" which in turn makes someone look like they can't add, or can't divide, large numbers, as they are fumbling for their calculator and in the time it takes them to set it up (get batteries), punch the problem in, the old codger has figured out the answer.

Older members of society consider younger members inept, unable, shallow, lacking in reasoning skills, etc. The jury is still out on that.

The problem-solving mind is housed in an emotional mind, in which confidence matters, thus their general feeling that they can't do it without a little hand-held machine may be more important than you think. I have always considered hand-held electronic dictionaries, for example, to have intrinsic in their attraction an emotional element, allowing the student to go "home to mama" with just a click. No wonder they can't function when they're removed!

There is some benefit to being able to punch little numbers on a small keyboard quickly, and, for example, learning how these small keyboards work. There is no question, machine-users have an advantage in the modern world. But those who are focused on the little machine are often not focused on the people, or the solution, or the reasoning involved. Machine-users are invariably punished by default in some other area.

It's fairly common to withhold the calculator in the first few years (I know this from asking my students, by the way, not from reading these articles. These articles would lead me to believe that the "users" and the "no-calc advocates" are facing off in an armed battle, and don't even communicate with each other. Each group can show visible tangible benefits of doing it their way. Statistics can be manipulated, but also, there are clear benefits to each side.

The difference with grammar-check and spell-check is that you don't see teachers at this level making conscious choices about it. These things are simply loaded onto their first computer, and, it's assumed that if they load up Microsoft Word they're going to need something. I'm not sure what kind of language-specific grammar-check/spell-checks they are used to before they get to Word, but their history of dealing with machines/solving problems is quite important. Either they have some independent reasoning skills (knowing when to look something up, for example), or they don't. Either they have enough confidence in their own choices (or too much confidence), or not enough. Sheets, C., & Wallace, N. E. (2007). Calculators in the classrooms: Help or hindrance? Retrieved from Google Scholar. Accessed 2-13.

Kakaes, K. (2012, June 25). Why Johnny Can’t Add Without a Calculator. Slate. Accessed 2-13.

Pomerantz, H. (1997). The role of caluculators in math education (pdf). Prepared for the USI/CPMSA Superintendents Forum, Dallas TX. Provided by Texas Instruments. Accessed 2-13.

Education World. (2012). Educators Battle Over Calculator Use: Both Sides Claim Casualties.


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