Math teaching adapts to technology

But calculators won’t help kids escape multiplication tables.
Monday, March 28, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:22 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

It is material that John Nies, a Derby Ridge Elementary School teacher, knows: basic math.

The problems and solutions haven’t changed since Nies was an elementary school student more than 20 years ago. The way students go about finding those solutions, however, has changed. Thanks to the continued advancement of technology, mathematics is drastically different from what it was two decades ago.

“With any academic subject, it will probably adapt to the changing technologies,” Nies said.

Linda Coutts, the elementary math coordinator for Columbia Public Schools, said more technology has led to more complex forms of mathematics.

“The amount of mathematics that has been discovered in the last 20 years is much more than has been discovered since the beginning of time,” Coutts said.

Equations that once were calculated with a pencil and paper are solved in seconds with help of a computer or calculator.

“The use of technology like graphing calculators and computer software has really changed how math is taught and tested,” said Suzanne Tourville, an assistant professor of mathematics at Columbia College. “There is less need to be able to do arithmetic by hand.”

According to a 2004 survey published by Decision Analysts Inc., an estimated 4.5 million students in grades seven through 12 use graphing calculators to do math homework.

Sticking to the basics

Despite technological advances, a majority of the elementary math curriculum continues to focus on the basics: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Most elementary school students learn to do math the old-fashioned way — by hand.

Tracee Larson, public relations manager of education and productivity solutions at Texas Instruments, which produces 89 percent of calculators used by students in grades seven through 12, said her company thinks the fundamental math operations will continue to be critical to a well-rounded math education.

“The concepts and principles of math will never change; there is always going to be that need for students to focus on basic math functions,” Larson said. “Those basic math functions compose the foundation of many of the computations we do on a daily basis.”

Nies’ second-grade students learn how to solve problems on paper and on a calculator.

“It makes things easier because it tells you the answer fast,” said Kaitlyn Vaughn, one of Nies’ students.

Kaitlyn’s classmate Bryce Camp said he prefers to solve his math problems the old-fashioned way.

“I think it is fun to do with paper and a pencil,” Bryce said.

Basic math operations likely will never be abandoned, but there might not be as much emphasis on certain functions.

“Rather than spending two to three years learning long division, a computer or calculator can give you that answer quickly and correctly as long as you put the right information in,” Coutts said. “The process and idea of long division will be there. But we are not going to spend a year and a half to two years on it.”

Problem solving, however, might see more attention.

“I think that in terms of math curriculum that classes are going to become more problem solving and less computational,” Tourville said. “More of solving real-world problems.”

David Cramer, a math graduate student at MU, said students will need to learn basic math to focus on problem solving.

“The skill set you get from mathematics goes beyond adding and subtracting,” Cramer said. “You’re not just trying to develop a set of mathematical skills; you are trying to develop a logical way of thinking.”

Although Coutts said there will not be as much focus on certain fundamental operations, she said students will need knowledge of general math skills.

“It still is important, and even 15 to 20 years from now, that children have a handle on their multiplication and division facts,” she said.

“Because we have technology, the important issue is for children, and adults, as well, to be able to look at these machines and make a decision on if the answer makes sense,” she said.

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