The Curse of the Calculator?

An Unapologetic Rant

I have watched the debate about calculators in the classroom for over 20 years, and I have always had some reservations about the promotion of calculators as being a harmless or even useful addition at the lower educational levels. As somebody who has used mental arithmetic from the age of nine, I have wondered what impact calculators would have on today’s young adults. Yesterday I had my answer, and it was not pretty.

I happened to be present at an impromptu meeting between a trainee and her line manager. The business context was hospitality (I am being deliberately obfuscating here, this for the avoidance of embarrassing anybody), and in that context the ability to give the correct change to cash offered in the shortest possible time is a necessary skill. The trainee also worked in a supermarket, and she was skilled at using the electronic till to know what change to give. Yesterday her inexperience at being able correct change without the use of a till was a cause for concern for both her and her line manager. The trainee mentioned that she been using a calculator since the age of six, and had relied exclusively on calculators, even if in the form of electronic tills, to “do her sums for her”. The line manager suggested that the trainee acquire the skill of counting out the change, and the trainee agreed with alacrity.

I have occasionally chatted with shop assistants about about this topic, and I particularly recall a woman in her mid-50’s who took delight in counting back the change to me, while other people (mostly younger) confess to relying on the till. This reinforced my view that today’s younger people were probably missing out. Yesterday’s experience confirmed that view.

At the risk of sounding like a frightful reactionary, I think the time has come to re-assess the role that calculators have in the classroom, and give younger people an opportunity to develop a much greater command of numeracy.

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