img.latex_eq { padding: 0; margin: 0; border: 0; }

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Resistance is Futile

It seems the arrival of the new TI-89 has rekindled the debate over the use of calculators. I have to admit that I'm still undecided on this one, and like most things, I suspect a fairly straight forward compromise can be reached. On the one hand, the calculator is just the latest in a long series of math tools. It replaces the slide-rule, the abacus, and counting stones. There is no reason why we should suddenly object to making our lives easier. There are many concepts and tools integral to life that I have no idea how to use or that I use without total understanding. I have no idea how to grow corn, weave clothing, smelt metal, etc. I might have cursory knowledge of the processes and with plenty of time and money, I'm sure I could figure it out. But if someone held a gun to my head and asked me to make soap or milk a cow, I would be in just as much trouble as if they asked me to build a digital computer, even though I bathe, blog, and consume dairy daily.

On the other hand, I remember my immediate disgust when I was tutoring a girl in college algebra who had to reach for a calculator to find 1/3 of 3. How can students be made to understand math basics when they have a hand held computer that is one step away from Skynet?

To me, the problem results from teachers posing pseudo-mathematical questions. The problems look like math. They have numbers and operations and variables. But instead of requiring reasoning and abstract pattern manipulation, they are really only asking the student to operate an algorithm. When faced with this, why wouldn't an intelligent student reach for a shiny new TI-89? Mathematicians don't use calculators all that much, not because they are trying to stay true to their numerate roots, but because they simply aren't of that much use. If you're trying to prove a conjecture or sure up a hypothesis, a calculator is not going to help you. So instead of arguing the merits of technology, we should be pushing our young people to do real math and happily leave the algorithms behind.

I understand both sides of the argument, I really do. But I can't help but think that we are waxing just a bit too nostalgic over the whole thing.

No comments: