Calculator Use Revisited

One of the conversations at the Bacon-Wrapped Lessons Workshop on Monday involved the difficulty of motivating students to learn the multiplication table to fluency in a world where calculators are so prevalent.  The situation described was one of 6th graders having difficulty with long division and fractions due to insufficient fluency with math facts and questioning why they should learn the math facts when they could use a calculator instead.

A few ideas (a bit after the fact and somewhat loosely categorized):

Big Picture

Sometimes students just need to know how what you would like to motivate them to learn fits into the larger scheme of things.  They may need to hear that fluency with math facts will help them with what they are working on now (long division and fractions) or how long division and fractions will help them learn math that comes later.

They may need to be reminded why we study math and how it might relate to other interests (science, money, sports statistics, careers they might want to pursue).  Montessori  schools tell the story of the development of numbers (some children love the historical perspective).

More specifically with regard to calculators, I have been known to point out that we are not cyborgs; there is a difference between what a tool we are using can do and what we ourselves know how to do.  I have also been known to point out that there is a difference between using a calculator when you already know how to do the math and using a calculator to avoid learning how to do the math.

Challenge

Demonstrate that you can call out the answer to single digit multiplication problems faster than a student can get the answers from a calculator or demonstrate that you can solve long division problems faster using fluency with math facts than a student can by working out long division by using a calculator for each multiplication step.

Demonstrate that converting fractions to decimals (to use the calculator) isn’t always the best option for solving problems.

Set up speed tests challenging students to see if they can improve their own scores, out perform you, or divide into teams and compete against each other.  I, for example, seem to have a child mastering her math facts for the primary purpose of unseating me as the reigning fraction champion of my sixth grade class.

Modeling

It never hurts to consider what we (including other teachers) are modeling for our students.  Have we modeled for students that becoming fluent in math facts is unimportant?  Have we modeled that math isn’t something most people enjoy; that it is something to be dreaded or something unimportant to learn when technology can do it for us?  Do we model for them that some people are just born math brains and some aren’t?  Do we show enthusiasm when it is time for math?  Let them see us working out math problems without a calculator (outside of math lessons too!)?  Do we demonstrate that we have confidence that they are all able to learn how to do the math?

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