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  • Scott Murphey

An Argument Against Calculators in Early Years of Education

Updated: May 3, 2021

Big Idea: Based on what we know about learning, creativity, and thinking, we should be cautious about having kids use calculators in the early years, elementary and middle school, of their learning.

The other day while running I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Mindscape by Sean Caroll.

In this episode, he was interviewing Dean Buonomano is one of the leading neuroscientists studying how our brains perceive time, which is part of the bigger issue of how we construct models of the physical world around us.

As they were talking the topic turned to something that I think is extremely relevant to learning and education. It has to do with knowledge and thought. This is part of a larger conversation they were having, but I think this small excerpt from their transcript will sum up the big idea I will use in my discussion below. This is around minute 10 in the podcast. knowledge is the infrastructure of thought, so in order to think about the problem, you have to have the data already built in, embedded into your neural circuits. If I ask you to think about a problem in physics, to create some novel idea, you need to have those primitive concepts already embedded in your circuits, that’s why you think about something differently than I think about something. So the idea that somebody who doesn’t know anything about quantum physics will just tap into their mental interface and load that up into their brain, they might gather information, but I don’t think they’ll be able to build upon that information, because that information is the substrate of creativity and thought.

Making the connection to calculators.

While things like calculators might, on the surface make things easier for students, they could possibly be a detriment to their thinking and creativity in the long run. That process of building our number sense and connections between numbers is a fundamental part of how they will think and the ideas they will generate. If they are just doing calculations on a calculator, they might learn how to get the right answer but they are missing out on the "infrastructure" in which they should be building on.

In reality, this is part of a larger issue in education about learning, knowledge, and creativity. We have come to understand that these things are built on the facts and processes we have in our long-term memory. Not just the facts and processes but the schema (vast connections of ideas) we have build up as well. But there is also an undercurrent of trying to make learning "easy" for students, or "fun" and "interesting". While I definitely want learning to be fun and interesting for everyone, the way we go about it, like allowing students to use calculators too early in education, many times has the exact opposite effect we are hoping for.

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