Education Opinion

Calculated Risk

By Nancy Flanagan — January 27, 2010 2 min read
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Just when you thought Texas had won the triple crown of legislative overreach, hysteria and micromanagement by declaring Brown Bear a red menace, lawmakers in West Virginia are now toying with the idea of banning calculators in classrooms until students reach high school.

Predictably, this is because a WV legislator met the proverbial Clerk Who Cannot Make Change, and decided to take Bold Action, impacting the mathematical learning of every schoolchild in West Virginia, instead of just complaining about the poorly trained clerk in question. (It did, however, give the editor a chance to use the catchy phrase “add up” in the title of the article, speaking of predictable.)

I’d like to point out that lots of young people can’t make change. I was taught to make change by a floor supervisor named Doris in my first high school job, because the cash register certainly wasn’t going to do it for me. I was taking Algebra II at the time (got a B+). Old people--like me--make change in our heads. Young people use their debit cards after swiping bar codes in the self-check lane, which is faster and doesn’t require you to speak to any grumpy old people.

In the article, it’s clear that this is a partisan issue in West Virginia. One party is for the ban--with its lawmakers declaring “I think we ought to force kids to learn their times tables” and labeling calculators “a crutch.” The other party takes a more nuanced stance, pointing out that calculators allow kids to solve more complex problems. There didn’t seem to be any dialogue--and reader comments following the article quickly devolved into a mudfest over the intelligence of citizens of West Virginia.

I think we should require kids to memorize their times tables, too. Who doesn’t? I also think that there’s no point in not using cheap, ubiquitous technologies to solve diverse mathematical problems encountered in daily life. I guess that makes me bipartisan.

Five years ago, for no good reason, I was compelled to teach 7th grade math, even though I’m a music teacher. In order to teach the assigned curriculum, I had to learn to use a graphing calculator--which was kind of fun. The kids taught me most of what I needed to know--but they wondered why I was not yet proficient in calculator use. I explained the concept of the slide rule, and dug one up to show them. They thought it was cool--kind of like a calculator without batteries.


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