Friday, February 8, 2013

Is Technology Hurting Your Child's Future?

English: the calculator of SHARP (ELSIMATE EL-...
SHARP Calculator (Wikipedia)
by Kenneth Williams

Gadgets, gadgets, gadgets. Whether it's an iPad, iPhone, smartphone, laptop, desktop, tablet, or other mobile device, today's kids use gadgets more than ever.

And technology is important. Kids need to be conversant with gadgets in this day and age, for computers are here to stay.

However, for a young person wrestling with the education system, there's a major drawback to all the smart computing power out there today.

Gadgets are packed with apps (programs to me and you), and one of those apps will be a calculator. Ah yes, the humble electronic calculator: upgraded, beautified, and shrunk for the twenty- first century.

Web browsers have calculators built in. Google can be used as a calculator. Every smart phone has a calculator. Even "dumb" phones have one nowadays. The problem?

Remember back to the days when the telephone had a manual dial and the only screen you owned sat in the corner of the lounge. How did we all calculate in those days?

Answer: with a paper and pencil. Older folks can still use these tools. We were well taught.

Now don't get me wrong. Calculators are terrific for, well, calculating - when a calculator is required. If you need to multiply 4567 x 8936 then a calculator is the tool for the job. But what about simple sums, like 34 + 27 =? Nobody needs a calculator for this. And yet too many children nowadays instinctively reach for the gadget when confronted with even simpler problems.

Calculator dependency among the young has become such a problem that the UK government recently announced it will ban calculators in primary math tests from 2014.

This makes sense. After all, kids will never develop true math skills if arithmetic - the most important and basic branch of mathematics - is taught as a mere button-pushing exercise. Kids need to learn the core skills of numbers: how to add, subtract, multiply and divide. They also require a firm understanding of fractions, percentages and decimals.

Can a calculator teach these skills? Of course not. Electronic brains can shortcut the time to solve a calculation, but only human brains can turn a deep understanding of numbers into a rewarding life. And this is the point.

Because for kids who want to progress in our increasingly-competitive world and get a job someday, it's now essential to become "good at math".

What's the first stage on the journey to being good at mathematics? Being good with numbers. Math is a progressive subject, which means a child needs to become competent at level one before moving to level two, and then level three and so on.

This explains why kids often struggle in higher branches of math, especially Algebra, where "number sense" is required to understand more advanced skills. Numbers, therefore, form the very foundation of math. Those who develop natural mathematical skills usually start from playing around with numbers.

That's because arithmetic is a creative subject. A child learns to look for and find alternative ways to solve problems. And gradually the child will learn to apply the same creative process to wider problems outside the mathematics classroom.

Such a problem-solving mindset can only benefit the child and the world in general. Needless to say, none of this creativity can be developed with a calculator, which effectively robs the child of a lifetime benefit.

So encourage your child to turn off the gadget and turn on the brain more often.

Poor math skills lead to poor self-esteem. Strong math skills lead to a life of wonder and opportunity.
Kenneth Williams is a mathematician, veteran teacher, and creator of Fun With Figures at

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