Calculators: To use or not to use?

The use of calculators in Primary Schools has been debated for years now, with critics citing that they make children lazy, complacent and reliant on them, for even basic calculations.

Ministers banned the use of calculators in national maths tests for 11-year-olds in England from 2014.

Prior to this, pupils were freely allowed to use calculators from the age of 7 but the government felt children’s ‘dependence’ on calculators for basic maths was preventing them from gaining a true mastery of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

The National Curriculum states, “Calculators should not be used as a substitute for good written and mental arithmetic. They should therefore only be introduced near the end of key stage 2 to support pupils’ conceptual understanding and exploration of more complex number problems, if written and mental arithmetic are secure.”

It is important for pupils to understand that the calculator cannot replace their own understanding of calculation structures or their ability to estimate. Without understanding of calculation structure, it would be difficult to know what to ask a calculator to work out. Without good estimation skills, judging whether the answer it produces is reasonable in the context of the problem, would also be difficult.

However, the calculator can give pupils opportunities to explore more complicated numbers, real life situations, try examples with much larger numbers and decimals which they might find hard to handle with mental or written methods, and to get through more calculations in a shorter time. This allows pupils to gather evidence to support reasoning and to test out hypotheses and generalisations.

There is evidence to show that the use of calculators can benefit children’s learning. Calculators In Primary Mathematics (1994) by Kaye Stacey and Susie Groves suggests their ‘use provides a rich mathematical environment for children to explore and promotes the development of number sense’.

David Boorman in his 2015 report Should Primary School Children Be ‘Calculator Aware’ Or ‘Calculator Beware’? states, ‘they can develop conceptual understanding, support and improve mental and written methods, be a stimulus for dialogic talk, provide instant feedback and help to develop key mathematical ideas’.

As with any approach it matters how teachers and pupils use calculators and thinking about when, where and why to use a calculator is a key skill that teachers can build into lessons. In primary school the use of calculators is maybe beneficial when taught alongside other methods in order to deepen understanding, test ideas, refine thinking and tackle mathematical problems in new ways.

(If you type 372215 on your calculator and flip it upside down, you get the word ‘sizzle’, a calculator word that is both an ambigram and an onomatopoeia! What numbers do you need to write ‘hello’?)

Mrs Shaw
Class Teacher Reception