Computers, Calculators in Math Urged
A task force of the National Academy of Sciences has urged schools to give all K-12 students access to electronic calculators and computers in mathematics classes.
Such access, it argues, would end the "pencil-and-paper squeeze'' that has limited most math education in the United States to practice of routine skills.
"Some question whether we can know arithmetic without moving a pencil across paper,'' said Anthony Ralston, chairman of the task force and professor of mathematics and computer science at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
In fact, he said, "there is just as much knowing through doing with calculators as there ever was with pencils and paper.''
By increasing students' use of technology, he argued, schools can enhance their math "power''—their ability to reason and to apply math principles—rather than develop skills that an electronic tool can perform faster.
Mr. Ralston, chairman of the curriculum task force of the academy's Mathematical Sciences Education Board, presented the panel's report here this month at the annual meeting of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. It is expected to be released formally later this year, after it has been approved by the board and by the academy's National Research Council.
According to newly released findings from the first national assessment of computer competence, relatively few students now have access to computers, and their use in math classes declines from the elementary grades to high school. (See Education Week, April 13, 1988.)
The national academy's report is one of several major projects under way to improve math education.
Last fall, the NCTM released a draft set of curriculum guidelines for K-12 instruction. Later this year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science is expected to release its "Project 2061'' report, which will outline what students should be expected to know in math and science.
All of these efforts are "urgent,'' Mr. Ralston said, because mediocre levels of achievement in those areas threaten the nation's economic well-being. Citing American students' poor performance on national and international math assessments, Mr. Ralston described the situation as "serious.''
"We are headed toward second-rate nationhood,'' he warned.
The first step in improving math education is to overhaul what is taught, he said. While changes in textbooks, teacher training, and testing are also necessary, he said, reformers must devote their attention to the curriculum.
"As opposed to any of those other things, changes in curriculum can be used to drive other things in the system,'' Mr. Ralston said. "If you change the curriculum, you have to change teacher education, textbooks, and tests.''
The panel's report, he said, is not aimed at promulgating a national curriculum, but instead is intended to guide curriculum reformers.
Any overhaul of the math curriculum, he argued, must take into account societal changes, particularly the pervasiveness of technology in everyday life. By the year 2000, he predicted, all students will have hand-held calculators, and all math classes will be equipped with suitable computers.
In order to integrate these tools into the curriculum, reformers must focus on the early grades, Mr. Ralston said.
"Unless we do something to break the hold pencil-and-paper arithmetic has on grades K-6, nothing we do in secondary school is very important,'' he said. "We will have lost so much math talent by the time you see them in secondary school, a reformed high-school curriculum is not going to matter very much.''
In addition to calling for an increased use of technology, Mr. Ralston said the elementary-school curriculum should include topics—such as data analysis and probability—that traditionally have been introduced in later grades. He also called for a heavy emphasis on applications of mathematical knowledge.
Teaching and instructional materials must also change, he noted. Rather than lecture to students, he said, teachers should work with them in small groups, serving as "coaches.''
In addition, he argued, computer software should be developed in conjunction with textbooks, rather than as an "add-on'' to the text.
"Unless we do that, we won't get the best use of software in the curriculum,'' Mr. Ralston said.