Should Calculators Be Allowed In The Classroom?

September 19, 2012 | | Comments 0

By Ray Holt, Graduate Student, University of Mississippi, September 19, 2012

The use of student calculators in the classroom has been a very controversial topic over the last several years. Calculators are in use in classrooms from elementary schools to universities. The controversy stems from the use of the calculator as the solution to a problem and not as a tool to calculate the final answer. Some see the use of calculators before the student understands the math concepts as the cause of many future math education problems. (Education World, 2002). The controversy continues on both sides of the issue from the classroom to academia.

The most obvious reason to let students use calculators at any age is that it is a tool that they need to learn as a job skill. Not every student will be mathematicians and engineers so being able to use the calculator for basic problems should become fundamental to everyone. The strongest and most fundamental argument for not letting students use calculators is that it will “keep students from benefiting from one of the most important reasons for learning math – to train and discipline the mind and to promote logical reasoning.” (Education World, 2002).

Small calculators showed up in our society in the mid-to-late 70’s. Sometime in the mid-80’s the price of the handheld calculator was within reason for most households. Consumers and businesses purchased them in order to be more efficient and to help perform the complex math that most had long forgotten. By the 2000’s, calculators were so powerful they were considered a handheld computer by most. The average price has now dropped to below $100. It is now considered a no excuse tool for everyone.

While schools and classrooms are being updated and upgraded with new technology, it is not welcomed by everyone. “That might sound like a welcome change. But this effort, part of a nationwide trend, is undermining American education, particularly in mathematics and the sciences. It is beginning to do to our educational system what the transformation to industrial agriculture has done to our food system over the past half century: efficiently produce a deluge of cheap, empty calories.” (Kakaes, 2012). Vern Williams, arguably the best math teacher in the country, prefers to use his old chalkboard to the high-tech version and his kids learn from ten year old textbooks. Mr. Williams says the old textbooks are better with fewer mistakes. (Kakaes, 2012).

This controversy was increased in 2000 when the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ (NCTM) issued its Principles and Standards for School Mathematics report. This report supported the advancement of technology in the classroom, and asserts that the use of technology often allows for problem solving to occur in greater depth. (Sheets, 2007). Unfortunately, there were no following sub-standards suggesting guidelines or limitations on the use of technology and at what grade levels. States and school districts used this new mandate as a reason to use and increase grant funds to upgrade their technology including, in many cases, calculators for all students. Some schools went even further and purchased notebook computers for all students.

What is new to this fight is the totalizing power of technology. A 2007 congressionally mandated study by the National Center for Educational Evaluation and Regional Assistance found that 16 of the best reading and mathematics learning software packages—selected by experts from 160 submissions—did not have a measurable effect on test scores. But despite this finding, the onslaught of technology in education has continued. The state of Maine was the first to buy laptops for all of its students from grades 7 to 12, spending tens of millions of dollars to do so, starting with middle schoolers in 2002 and expanding to high schools in 2009.” (Kakaes, 2012).

My opinion is that I do not think calculators should be allowed in the classroom before 8th grade. I think they should be introduced in pre-Algebra. Students need to learn how to think through problems and how to analyze the solutions, to estimate answers, and to know when an answer makes sense. This does not happen when a student becomes dependent on using a calculator. In my own teaching I witness everyday high school stu dents that cannot do single digit arithmetic. High school students should only be allowed to use a calculator in the classroom when they have proven they know the basic skills. Currently, many high school students are being taught to memorize the calculator keystrokes and to generate answers. Mathematic concepts and in-dept analysis is being skipped over for making sure students can generate answers to pass state tests. We are creating a generation of students that will not be able to think and analyze. All states need to carefully reconsider their use of the calculator in the classroom.


Education World. (July 10, 2002). Educators Battle Over Calculator Use: Both Sides Claim Casualties. Retrieved from

Kakaes, K., (June 25, 2012). Why Johnny Can’t Add Without a Calculator. New America Foundation. Retrieved from

Sheets, C. (July 2007). Calculators in the Classroom: Help or Hindrance?. Math in the Middle Institute Partnership. Action Research Project Report. Department of Mathematics. University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Retrieved from

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