I have had the "calculator argument " with any number of "educationists" who have very little classroom experience. In North America we are quick to provide the machine to replace children's lack of arithmetic skill. Things were getting so bad that, five years ago already, I was unable to determine whether a grade 7 student scored at a grade 2 level because he had a math disability, or because he had always used a calculator. In discussion with my superiors, it was suggested that I allow him to complete the standardized test with a calculator... One of those many moments when my jaw has dropped open in disbelief. (This type of student has no idea whether he has hit an incorrect button, because he has no ability to estimate,etc...)
Although there is fMRI research that indicates right parietal-lobe differences in the very exceptional, the vast majority of young students who presently depend on a calculator are perfectly capable of grasping the basics of our number system. Note the success of the Kumon method. My own experience, using a set of arithmetic tiles that students have guided me in developing, has been that the vast majority of students with problems in math, CAN succeed.
The world-wide craze these days seems to be to create graduates who are problem-solvers and creative thinkers. Basic skills have taken a back seat to "concepts". Someone needs to convince me that a child with no numerical understanding can actually manipulate mathematical concepts. We have created a generation of mathematical cripples.
While I lament the degree of academic pressure placed on Asian students, I am in firm accord with the Chinese emphasis in keeping children away from calculators and computers during elementary and middle school years. Chinese kids are taught to use their brains. (I would make one type of exception to the general rule - for making use of excellent computerized programs -such as Khan Academy - that teach skills along with concepts, keeping in mind that even these laubable programs are dependent on smoothly functioning hardware and a reliable power supply.)
We need to keep in mind that the clever people who designed all this modern technology were NOT the ones whose learning was done using the tools they have created.
Educationists are always quick to put the cart before the horse. It is what we did with teaching reading when studies showed that good readers employed phonetics efficiently. Without considering when and how these good readers began to put their phonetic skills to use, or how/when these skills were acquired, we jumped to making phonetics the pre-requisite to learning to read. Clearly, the subjects of the original research had not been trained using this"spit-and-sputter" approach which has done nothing to raise literacy rates. (for more on this, see "The Genius of Dick and Jane")
Arithmetic is the basis of all math. It is interesting to note that cash-register attendants who formerly had trouble calculating change, now have trouble combining coins to make the change that has been calculated for them. Is this progress?
Am I really the only one who sees that out children deserve a right to being taught basic skills in the public schools without having to pay for additional tutoring?
Giving a calculator to a struggling student is as illogical as providing interactive white-boards to a country without a dependable power supply. Do we exist to educate children or to provide markets for technology? And Kumon? (And ME?)
Now I hear rumours of returning to teaching our young kids computer programming. Why? Echos of wasting class time making the turtle track across the screen twenty years ago - about the time we gave up on teaching calculation. Lets' go back to teaching kids to add, subtract, multiply, divide, count, and estimate. Forget the fancy-schmancy stuff that they'll repeat again in later grades anyway.
Canada's education is in shambles. New private tutorial services pop up every day. Home schooling is quickly gaining popularity.
Something is definitely PHOOEY in the state of our education.