Are calculators in the classroom such a bad thing? Let’s look at the evidence.

|6 min read

Editor’s Note:

This is an updated version of a blog post published on September 19, 2018.

For years now, calculators in primary schools have been vilified as tools that make children lazy and complacent, serving as a substitute for thinking through mindless button pushing.

Despite opposition, ministers banned the use of calculators in national maths tests for 11-year-olds in England from 2014. Many believed that if calculators were introduced too early then children could develop a habit of simply reaching for a calculator and becoming too reliant on them. Calculators became the scapegoat for poor results and perceived low numeracy standards. Yet many academics argue that this was political posturing, a backward step and a myopic view of the situation at hand.

Even the 2014 national curriculum suggests that calculators should only be introduced towards the end of Key Stage 2, and only if pupils have achieved a solid understanding of the basics and are secure in written and mental arithmetic.

Prior to the new national curriculum, children were freely allowed to use calculators from the age of 7 but the government felt children’s ‘dependence’ on calculators for basic maths was preventing them from gaining a true mastery of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

But does touching calculator buttons from an early age really stop children thinking? Are they really bad for the fundamentals of mental arithmetic and calculation? We allow children to use other computers from an early age but calculators seem to get a raw deal and our cast as technological black sheep.

Robust evidence from a number of studies have shown calculators can have positive impacts and are highly effective teaching and learning resources.

Calculating the evidence

Rather than calculators being detrimental to pupils’ learning, there is a substantial amount of evidence to show that the use of calculators can benefit children’s learning. Calculators In Primary Mathematics (1994) by Kaye Stacey and Susie Groves suggests their ‘use provides a rich mathematical environment for children to explore and promotes the development of number sense’.

David Boorman in his 2015 report Should Primary School Children Be ‘Calculator Aware’ Or ‘Calculator Beware’? states, ‘they can develop conceptual understanding, support and improve mental and written methods, be a stimulus for dialogic talk, provide instant feedback and help to develop key mathematical ideas’.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) published an accessible and pragmatic guidance report to support and inform maths teaching for seven to fourteen-year-olds entitled Improving Mathematics in Key Stages 2 and 3. It contains eight practical and evidence-based recommendations using the best existing research available and offers important maths guidance on the craft of maths teaching.

According to this report, far from harming maths skills, calculators can help and they shouldn’t be spurned. It’s time to take them out of the cupboard and start using them and making them part and parcel of a ‘calculator aware’ approach.

The report suggests that calculators should be ‘integrated into the teaching of mental and other calculation approaches’ with the aim of enabling pupils to self-regulate their use.

The evidence suggests that calculators can help pupils become better at problem solving and can improve attitudes towards maths.

Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of EEF, said, ‘It’s often said that calculators can harm students’ arithmetic skills. What this review finds is that they can actually boost pupils’ fluency and understanding of maths – but that to do so, teachers should ensure they are used in a considered and thoughtful way, particularly with younger students’.

The EEF research found that children who had used calculators systematically throughout primary school had a greater understanding of and fluency with arithmetic.

It’s not the tool, it’s how you use it

Of course, as with any approach, it matters how teachers and pupils use calculators and the choice to use a calculator should be the child’s, not ours.

Thinking about when, where and why to use a calculator is a key skill that teachers can build into lessons so that children make intelligent decisions when it comes to selecting an appropriate method. Free calculator use can therefore help the mathematical thinking strategies and number awareness of children.

The evidence suggests that in primary school the use of calculators is beneficial when children are taught to use calculators alongside other methods and calculators allow children to tackle mathematical problems in new ways. They’re especially useful for helping pupils test their ideas and refine their thinking.

It all adds up

Calculators do have a role to play in the classroom and not just at the end of KS2 — they are far from being a substitute for thinking, and are a useful tool for learning when used effectively.

There are all sorts of theories about the way calculators can damage the development of the ‘basics’ but research tells us that the reverse may be true and that calculators can actually promote fundamental knowledge such as number sense. They can promote the higher-order thinking and reasoning needed for problem solving and their strategic use can boost understanding and fluency with arithmetic operations.

They allow for mathematical exploration and experimentation and can enhance understanding of concepts and mathematical capability. They also relieve children of unwieldy computation as they are efficient and reliable, allowing them to concentrate on more meaningful mathematical activities.

As Kenneth Ruthven stated in his 2003 article Creating A Calculator-Aware Number Curriculum, the effective use of a calculator involves ‘not only mastery of operating procedures but also a grasp of underlying mathematical ideas and the development of distinctive calculator methods’.

In the right hands, calculators have the potential to profoundly change the maths curriculum and the nature of mathematics teaching because they can augment rather than replace mental and written methods and serve as a powerful tool for problem solving and developing conceptual understanding. They are intelligent and highly versatile tools that can help children construct their own meanings.

Pressing ahead

There is no research that shows the use of calculators in classrooms leads to poorer performance but plenty of evidence to say calculators can do good. Best practice formative and summative classroom assessment should include both calculator and non-calculator components.

Isn’t it about time that we use calculators to their full potential, use them frequently and restore their status as friends not foes? They are safe, versatile and really do help children with their maths.

The calculator is a valuable tool and should be just as available for children to use in the classroom as other tools like rulers, number lines or hundred squares.