Saturday, January 22, 2022

Need a New Excuse

When I was a child, I hated those math worksheets and doing math by hand so much, it drove me to hate math altogether. It’s only once I started reading research studies to fuel my intense interest in genetics that I found any aspect of math I didn’t hate, and only gradually, as an adult, have I been shedding my hatred for other aspects of math.

Even as a child, I recognized that what I was doing was pointless drudgery I could do far more easily if I used an appropriate tool - a calculator. My teachers told me that it wasn’t enough to be able to do the problem with a calculator. Why? Because “you won’t always have a calculator with you”.

Now, even in the 90s, if you really made having a calculator a priority, you totally could’ve had a calculator with you in pretty much any situation that you’d have a pen and paper and a need to do simple math problems. I saw cashiers with calculators all the time, for example. There was only one situation I knew where you couldn’t have a calculator - if you were a kid forbidden from using them.

But that excuse has only gotten more transparently ridiculous over time. Now, most kids, at least by late elementary, do in fact carry a device at all times that is able to be a calculator as well as so many other things. And most 90s kids have grown into adults who have a calculator with them without having made it a priority to have one.

Some teachers are adapting to the times and doing what teachers should’ve been doing all along - finding ways to use calculators to improve their teaching, rather than banning them. But others are still clinging to the need to find some excuse for putting students through painful drudgery that makes them hate math. The practical argument no longer holds even the vaguest sense of reasonableness, so they must make up other excuses.

And making up excuses is exactly what they’ve done. A university calculus instructor attempts to prove calculator-dependency makes students more likely to fail the final exam, and merely proves how little he understands about the scientific method as he demonstrates the “groundbreaking” result that people who can pass one math test are more likely to pass another, while entirely failing to isolate the potential impact of calculators as opposed to any other variable.

The most common argument is that using a calculator regularly results in poorer conceptual understanding than working out problems on pen and paper. This argument isn’t really borne out by actual research, mind you, but it’s a popular one nonetheless. And since when has teaching been bound by what actual research shows is effective?

But if what they’re wanting is to build conceptual skills, why depend on pen and paper? It’s possible to make an abacus with cheaply available household materials, so cost isn’t an issue, and an abacus is far better at building conceptual understanding and also far more fun to play around with than pen and paper math. And besides this classic, ancient tool, there’s also a wide range of math manipulatives, many of which could be easily handmade if cost is an issue.

However, using any of those tools - calculators or manipulatives - or indeed changing the rote methods you’ve read in your teaching handbook in any way, requires that you, yourself, actually understand the concepts you’re teaching. And I suspect that therein lies the real reason many teachers resist moving away from pen and paper - because pen and paper is how they learned, and their understanding of math is too rudimentary and rote to be able to translate it to any other modality. And so many teachers, ironically, seem to utterly detest the idea of having to actually learn anything themselves.


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