Confessions of a Calculator Addict

I remember being allowed in Jr. High to use the calculator to “check my work.” Soon after I learned that the books in High School had the answers in the back! It was like condoned cheating!

How could I go wrong with the magic box and the answers given to me straight from the publisher?

And then I became addicted.

Sometime after Geometry I lost my multiplication facts. I wasn’t just checking my work on the calculator.

Subconsciously I figured there was no reason to trust my potentially faulty memory of math facts if I had the absolute sure thing right there next to me.

For years I stopped doing arithmetic.

And my dad chastised me. Every time some quick calculation came up in the kitchen, garage or grocery store, I would stare at him blankly. Then I would reach for my calculator.

The way he looked at me, you’d think I had reached for a bong, ripped off my bra, sang Kumbaya and spat on the pope.

I ignored him.

For years.

Until one day I realized that I had absolutely no memory of 8*7. Yep – 8*7 was what did it. And I started watching myself. I always did simple arithmetic (even addition of single digits) on the calculator!

Then I watched other people. I saw the clerks in the grocery store reach for the magic box to figure out 10% off something. I saw an older man at McDonald’s send the girl into a tizzy because he modified his cash payment after the girl had already typed it in.

“There’s a problem here,” I thought. Maybe Paps was right.

I put down the magic box. Cold turkey.

I started using prime factors to help me remember my old multiplication facts. I re-engineered subtraction so I could actually do it. I read Dead Reckoning: Calculating Without Instruments. And then I refused to allow students to use the “devil box”.

I put it on my syllabi that calculators were strictly prohibited (unless expressly invited by me – in the case of probability and statistics). I growled at anyone who reached for one.

And I taught them arithmetic.

And we were all better off.

Are you a calculator addict? Share your story in the comments.

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11 Responses to Confessions of a Calculator Addict

  1. Sounds like all of these folks had poor logic and estimation skills, and are all afraid of being ‘wrong’. THOSE are the problems, not not knowing 8*7!

    • Indeed, Siggi, you are right – but how did they get poor estimation skills? How did they learn to fear being wrong?

      They were given a crutch very early and told that they needed this tool. So they didn’t learn to estimate because they didn’t need to. They didn’t learn that it’s okay to be wrong because the black box always prevented that.

      8*7 is just one symptom of the problem.

  2. Also, you kind of prove my point for me: while you were using a calculator (despite being made to feel ashamed for it), you were engaged in real problem solving with your father. You eventually chose math as your career, and work to keep others from fearing it!

    • I was engaged in real problem solving, you are right.

      And I wasn’t ashamed. It wasn’t until later that I realized that I had lost the ability to do simple math. I’m pretty much never ashamed – if I approach shame, I halt the action. Just my nature. 🙂

      Thanks for the continued conversation, Siggi!

  3. I’m still contemplating how significant it is to forget multiplication tables. I’m not at all sure – still reflecting on it – how important a skill it is.

    As a boy I had to use logarithm tables. I also used a slide rule. These “really important skills” – at that time – are now redundant. I can calculate logarithms, – and anything else, – with powerful computational tools on my cell phone.

    if I’m stuck without my phone (rarely happens) I can use power series to get a good answer in my head. But remembering multiplication tables? I’m suspecting it’s a dying art, of no particular use any more.

    • Alas, Gary, you learned them, solidified them in your brain, used them to build things like the power series and practiced them with tables and the slide rule. Only THEN did you forgot them.

      And it was mostly about confidence.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. I taught Geometry and Algebra II this past year (9th and 10th grade). I had a “no calculator” policy in my class for the first 5 months. After that, I had to relent.

    For Geometry, looking up sin/cos/tan values in the tables like I did in high school was just ridiculous, so it seemed appropriate to use. Then, I noticed that the simple math errors I was seeing on students’ work began to fade.

    Algebra II was worse. After 4 months of no calculators, I gave in. These were two of my biggest sections (28 & 34), and the range of basic math abilities was pretty big. My high-fliers could do the work without the black brick, but my more math-challenged kids weren’t getting anything from the lessons because they were too bogged down in the basic math calculations. I couldn’t hold the entire class back, so I relented.

    Same issues. In 6th grade, they are given these big TI-84s, and I’m guessing there were no restrictions because I can’t see that their math skills have improved much.


    • It’s so sad, Trey. But you did your best.

      Ideally we’ll get parents on board when their kids are very young – and we can change things in the long run that way.

      Thanks for stopping by to share.

  5. I’m rather stunned at the pro-calculator comments. A calculator is certainly superior than tables for trig functions, logarithms etc. But for lesser computations, if you know your times tables, you can breeze through many algebra and calculus problems much faster. Also knowing your times tables you more quickly recognize factors that allow you to reduce fractions. The biggest problem in my view is that when students use calculators for simply things, then they forget how to do basic operations like long division. Yet if you understand long division, it’ll be easier to understand polynomial division.

    I also just get annoyed at people who think that learning a skill is all about learning that skill. It goes far beyond that. People say that music provides mental benefits far beyond playing music. Likewise exercising your brain with math builds and strengthens brain synapses and buttresses our thinking power.

    And because I’m exercising my brain more deeply by not using calculators, you’ll probably get dementia before I do.

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