Maths teacher Ross Metcalfe laments the fact that calculators are over-used in schools and insists that mental arithmetic should be part of the daily curriculum to improve numeracy skills:

I watched in dreadful fascination as the 16 year old pondered the problem, unpacked his Casio fx-82za plus and punched in 6×2 , which I am glad to report, equalled 12.

I have a vision of humanity enslaved by these little, grey, pocket pods. Of young people glassy-eyed and open-mouthed when confronted by 7+9 or R12, 30 plus R1, 60. And no calculator.

Are we heading for a world in which the mystery of numbers is hidden in the chips of computers? Moreover, is the overuse of calculators robbing our people of the ability to manipulate numbers?

There is an Isaac Asimov story, written in 1957 and set in the far, far future, in which the long-lost skills of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing are rediscovered .Unfortunately this Giant Leap is not used to improve science and commerce, but unlocks the possibility of replacing expensive missile computers with expendable numerate human pilots.

Might this story becoming true? The results of the 2013 grade 9 numeracy tests say yes. However, is anything being done about it, given that the inappropriate use of these machines robs the learner of vital numeracy skills?

A few calls and clicks of the mouse revealed that many teachers do try to limit the use of calculators and their usefulness is being challenged.

Maths clipart from WORD

One source said the notion that calculators save time to do other tasks is hogwash. Canadian research in 2007 showed that calculators might make the student feel more secure, but, surprisingly, they do not improve the time taken to complete a task.  In one school, where the use of calculators only begins in Grade 10, it was claimed that the stimulation of regular mental arithmetic creates new neural pathways in the brain.

Is there any shame in using a pencil and paper to do long division? Would it be ok if the corridors of  primary schools and high schools to echoed  to the singsong chant of times tables?  Is rote learning still frowned upon?

Even when the learner must use the calculator for complex calculations, basic numeric skills are required for estimating answers.  Otherwise, the calculator answer could be wrong by a factor of 10 or more and the learner be unaware .

I have little doubt that the use of calculators in schools should be limited and mental arithmetic be a part of the day’s activity in every grade. The appalling results in the grade 9 tests bear witness to this.

Copyright: Ross Metcalfe

Ross is an ex pom who realised late in life that Capetown was the centre of the world. He has taught in Botswana, UK and RSA. And now tutors in English, Science and Maths from his home in Thornton.

Illustration: Clip art from WORD