Revenge of the calculators

"264-199...That leaves you with 65 tickets," exclaimed Captain Obvious.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

I took my kids to Chuck E. Cheese today.  We had a great time eating pizza and playing games and, as always, the kids racked up quite a few tickets.  For those of you who have never had the pleasure of going to one of these epicenters of modern civilization and haute cuisine, Chuck E. Cheese is a pizza joint named for a life-sized mouse with lots of kid-friendly, token-driven games.  Mini skeeball, Whack-a-Mole, you name it.  Winners of these games are rewarded with tickets that can be redeemed for various worthless toys, or, in the case of my 4-year old, cotton candy (because the pizza just didn't have quite enough nutrition and he felt that he needed a supplement).

One of the cooler features at Chuck E. Cheese is the Ticket Cruncher.  This fabulous device sucks in your tickets and counts them, all the while making an 8-bit crunching noise. When it has eaten all of your tickets, it spits out a receipt with your total number.

So my youngest scored himself 264 tickets...Not bad for $30 worth of tokens.  He took the receipt proudly up to the highly trained professional behind the counter and I asked if we could get the cotton candy and save the remaining tickets for another day.  The cotton candy cost 199 tickets.  From the title of this blog, you can probably guess what happened next.  That's right, he whipped out his calculator and, after a few hurried keystrokes and some banging on the "Clear" button after a data entry mistake, informed me that I had 65 tickets left. 

Of course, I'd just spent 2 hours inside Chuck E. Cheese with 5 boys (4 of my own, one moocher tagging along) and was in no mood to deal with a product of the modern American educational system.  He seemed genuinely surprised when I told him that I knew how many tickets I had left and asked that he deduct the appropriate number from the receipt so that I could take my cotton candy and leave as soon as the giant mouse barring my way would let me to the door. 

So what's my point?  It won't be the first time it's been said in the Ed Tech blogs, and I'm sure it won't be the last time it crops up.  However, if we don't start changing the way we teach math and critical thinking in this country, we're going to end up with an overgrowth of pizza-cutting, cheap toy selling Chuck E. Cheese employees.  Even my wife, who couldn't solve a system of equations or find an indefinite integral to save her immortal soul was disturbed by the revenge of the calculators.  She promptly began drilling our kids on subtraction to make sure their college careers were secure.

My students in my geometry class can't understand why I would rather see answers in terms of square roots instead of a decimal approximation, or why I insist on fractions instead of the repeating decimals their calculators spit out.  These same students also told me that the y-intercept of the equation of a line was the y-intercept because the equation said so.  They universally missed the whole x=0 at the y-axis idea.

In many other countries, teachers focus for months at a time on a narrow range of concepts beginning in primary school such that all students have mastered the concepts before moving on.  Basic arithmetic becomes trivial at this point and calculators are only broken out when they can actually save time (Do we really need to flog students over 5-place long division?  Probably not.).  Inverse trig functions for example: now there's a place where a calculator can be pretty handy.  Chuck E. Cheese ticket redemption?  They shouldn't have much of a place here. 

As with all other things technological, these devices need to be tools.  Crutches that prevent actual thought?  Maybe it's time for some long division.  Flashcards anyone? 

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