Why calculators are scarier than MySpace

It is very easy to jump on the more-technology-is-better bandwagon, but much harder to address fundamental underlying deficiencies in the 3 R's (readin', ritin', and 'rithmetic).

Fellow blogger, George Ou, and I had a very interesting exchange this weekend over Marc Wegner's post on the Lame $100 Laptop. In a nutshell, we came to the conclusion that it was very easy to jump on the more-technology-is-better bandwagon, but much harder to address fundamental underlying deficiencies in the 3 R's (readin', ritin', and 'rithmetic).  Many of my posts have in some way lamented chronic underfunding of public education, particularly in the areas of computer technology.  Yet if students lack basic academic skills and the ability to think critically about the world around them, the most advanced computer labs in the world are nothing more than glorified solitaire machines.

As George points out:

I went to school in China (up to second grade) in a mud hut with holes in the walls for windows. It was so cold at times in the winter that we had to run a lap around the school half way through the class to avoid freezing. This was 1978 and 1979 and there were no computers. We didn't even have text books, just empty notebooks which we used to copy the homework assignment questions off the black board from the teacher's hand writing. I learned enough Chinese in first and second grade to be able to read a news paper. I learned enough math to last me until the 6th grade in America since I learned nothing new in third through fifth grade in America.

Perhaps this is an extreme example, but it makes a valid point.  My own mother went to school in a one-room schoolhouse in the middle of Nowheresville, North Dakota (OK, it was actually Churchs Ferry, but you get my point) and she is the first to tell me that my blogs have too many run-on sentences. She also runs a gourmet foods business with global sales, recently negotiated distribution of her products with Amazon, and can, quite successfully, sell bacon to a pig.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not about to begin suggesting that we remove technology from schools and rescind my calls for reasonable funding for educational IT.  On the contrary, I believe that IT funding and good computer science/information systems training for students is more important than ever for Americans to stay competitive in a global economy.  However, as the $100 laptop initiative makes very clear, all too many Americans are missing the boat, attempting to replacing solid academics with technology.  All of this technology must be seen and taught as a tool, not a substitute for genuine critical thought.  School is supposed to be challenging and too many students, teachers, and parents are looking for the quick fix that computers seem to provide.

So why the title about scary calculators?  One of the best examples of this move away from the 3 R's comes from the pre-calculus textbook used  in my school.  Instead of taking what I would consider to be a mathematically-based approach to solving systems of equations, higher-order equations, and deriving trigonometric functions, the book asks students to use graphing calculators and the "trace" function most of them contain to find points on graphs.  Obviously, while this provides a solution, the book glosses over the mathematical principles and concepts and focuses on the calculator's ability to hand over answers.

I'm only 30, but back in my day, I had a graphing calculator, too.  It was mighty handy for visualizing complicated functions, as was Mathematica.  However, if my high school trig teacher caught me using a trace function to find the roots of an equation, she would have had my head on a platter.  George Ou put this another way:

"...my idea of a math class is that it should be advanced enough that calculators don't actually help you because there should be NO ARITHMATIC problems beyond the fifth grade let alone high school."

Again, the technology needs to be a tool, an additional way to visualize, deal with, and learn about concepts, rather than the a means of getting answers.  In a former life (and now still as a consultant), I conducted statistical analysis for clinical drug trials.  Although I relied heavily on a computer for number crunching, I would have been lost without a reasonable understanding of the statistical concepts my computer was implementing.

The best in educational technology needs to be balanced with the best in education.  We need to make sure that we aren't sending kids into a world where they are surrounded by technology they use blithely but don't understand.  We also need to make sure that they can think without help from Google. 


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