Thursday, 1 December 2011

MPs Debate the Use of Calculators

Yesterday's debate between Elizabeth Truss MP, Justin Thomlinson MP (Chair of the Parliamentary Committee for Financial Education) and Nick Gibb (Minister of State for Schools) is available here:

Here are some of the key insights they lacked:
1. Removing calculators from students will NOT create improvements in mental maths.  There is an intermediate step missing and this is the nurturing of mathematics teaching which uses the core structure and axioms of mathematics and does not teach algorithms and quotable facts without deep structural understanding.  Removing calculators could lead to more teaching of algorithms without structure which would compound current problems.
References: Elementary Mathematics by LiPing Ma. and subsequent posts
In essence overuse of calculators (where it occurs) is a symptom of the problem more than being a cause of it.

2. Developing fluency in tables has very limited benefit unless students do it in the context of developing scaling and other structurally sound semiotic structures for multiplication.

3. Both splitting and chunking are essential primitive structures for division.  It's also of great benefit for students to be aware of the scaling structure for division.
(Think - if you do 264 / 2 you use splitting - pulling 264 apart into two equal parts.  If you do 39 /13 you will probably chunk - thinking how many 13s are there in 39 rather than splitting 39 into 13 equal parts.  Different real life situations prompt different structural uses of division).

4. The issue of questions which should have been on non-calculator SATS papers appearing on calculator SATS papers had been identified by QCDA and they were in the process of addressing it by replacing those questions with appropriate calculator questions.  Appropriate uses of calculators include the use of calculators for questions where the results on the calculator demand interpretations and understanding that students could not access with non-calculator techniques and to assist the subordination of complex calculations in extended multi-stage functions which students could not otherwise access.
(contact me for further justification of this claim and more insight).

5. There are plenty of teenagers who are not experts on an appropriate variety of functions of smartphones and internet searches.  Yes they use smartphone but many of them only use them for a limited range of functions and they need the opportunity to reflect on the results internet searches generate to use them wisely in academic analysis.
(widely understood in education).

6. Yes it is important to focus on core skills but we have been doing this.  Some of the National Strategy has worked extremely well, other aspects have been seriously flawed.  Without insight into what has worked and what has not worked and why you cannot create an effective policy which will improve things.

Post Script:
At the beginning of the discussion Ms Truss asks why the issues of calculators in school has not been debated in parliament for so long.
The answer is because the quality of insight explored was far below that which would have been possible had the ministers involved attended a relevant consultation at ACME or WEF, which is what has been happening instead under the last government.

1 comment:

  1. For an vibrant international perspective on this theme (and for many other interesting discussions), please do visit the Math, Math Education, Math Culture group on the network.