Are K-2 students familiar with calculators? Do they know, at the most basic level, what calculators are used for (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division)? Following are examples of how teachers in three classrooms have incorporated calculator use into their mathematics lessons, from teaching students how to count to presenting them with basic algebraic concepts.
In one class (Huinker 2002), two teachers worked with kindergarteners and first graders to use a calculator to explore numbers. The students entered different numbers into the calculator, such as their age and the number of legs a spider has. They also added numbers together, anticipating the correct outcome, and talked about number magnitude (i.e., understanding that 1 is smaller than 100, and that it takes longer to count to bigger numbers). The students were also able to look at number relationships (i.e., "one more than," "one less than," and "ten more than") on the calculator. We classified these activities as pedagogical in nature (as opposed to functional), meaning they infused the calculator in teaching concepts rather than simply using it to do computation, drill, and practice. The authors also stated that this might help children connect number "words" with the quantities they represent, an NCTM content standard (number and operations).
Although the teachers kept track of both their own and their students' experiences with calculators in written journal entries, they did not communicate whether such use led to better student outcomes in math. However, the students in these classes demonstrated increased familiarity with calculators and their functions, a skill that would serve them well in the upper grades.
A teacher in another classroom (St. John & Lapp 2000) also used calculators to help her students learn about numbers. In this case, a two-line calculator was used. These calculators are particularly effective in allowing students to see a whole formula or equation because there are two lines of text visible in the window. Although again, there is no evidence that these tools related directly to improved student outcomes, the calculator introduced the students to early mathematical concepts, including fractions and beginning algebra. It is possible that this feature might be helpful to students with short-term memory deficits.
A final example (McNamara 1995) of using calculators in early grades looks at two approaches to teaching multiplication facts to 28 second–grade students in a public school. All of the children were just beginning to learn multiplication; none of them had received any previous classroom instruction in this topic.
One approach required the students to figure out their own answers to multiplication problems, before checking their work on a calculator. A second group of students entered a problem into the calculator and wrote that answer down on their paper. The two groups of students were assigned by lottery to each of the experimental groups. The goal of this exercise was to determine how students can best learn new multiplication facts. The students were tested individually on 34 problems in two tests that were taken two weeks apart.
Children in both groups increased both their testing time and the number of problems solved during the training. The students who figured out their own answers before checking them on a calculator proved to be ultimately more efficient at the calculations. It would seem that using calculators leads to improved scores on multiplication tests, whether the students were in the first or the second testing group. There was, however, no control group available to compare these students' testing results with those who did not use calculators at all.
Huinker, D. (2002). Calculators as learning tools for young children's explorations of number. Teaching Children Mathematics, 8(6), 316-321.
St. John, D. & Lapp D.A. (2000). Developing numbers and operations with affordable handheld technology. Teaching Children Mathematics, 7(3)November 162-164.
McNamara, D.S. (1995). Effects of prior knowledge on the generation advantage: Calculators versus calculation to learn simple multiplication. Journal of Educational Psychology, 87(2), 307-318.