The message from the National Numeracy Framework with reference to calculator use appears under the strand 'calculations'. The objective being for children to be 'taught to develop calculator skills and use a calculator effectively', with outcomes specified for Year 5 and 6 (ages 9 to 11) children only. The framework expresses the need to teach children the technical skills to use the basic facilities of a calculator. Most of the detail in the outcomes for Years 5 and 6 addresses these technical issues. As would be hoped, the arguably more mathematical skills, involving having a feel for or approximating and estimating the size of answers, checking results using inverses and interpreting decimal and negative number displays and rounding errors, are also included.

Various studies have shed light on the effect of calculator use on children's attitudes in mathematics. They point towards children having more positive attitudes towards mathematics and improving children's self-esteem across all ability levels. They can bring a positive and powerful message about the relevance of school experiences to the world outside. Some also believe that calculators can act as a good 'leveller' for mixed ability groups, as they enable the less able to do what they would otherwise be unable to do. In such cases the children may often be able to concentrate on the purpose of the activity rather than being side-tracked by 'number crunching'. Calculators have also been recommended for use in extending the mathematical insight of the more able. They can free up memory, cognitive effort and time, enabling children to concentrate on strategic aspects of problem solving.

Using calculators in the classroom

Some areas where calculators may impact positively on teaching and learning can be explored. Two uses of the calculator which may be considered together are that of working with large numbers and that of working with real data. Calculators may be an appropriate tool for dealing with otherwise complicated and tedious calculations with large numbers (for example, how many days is a million seconds) and for exploring number patterns with larger numbers (for example, in mathematical investigations, where calculators may indeed encourage further exploration). Calculators may be used as a labour-saving device allowing children to manipulate data generated in other subjects, like figures collected in a local study in geography.

More specifically, calculators have been used to help children to understand the central importance of place value in the structure of number. It is also a powerful tool when used in the acquisition and reinforcement of the concepts of negative numbers and decimals. Children's ability to estimate, round and approximate quantities can be greatly enhanced. They need a confident concept of number to enable them to do this.

A less obvious way of using a calculator as a learning tool is if children use calculators to check their own work. This practice not only offers them immediate feedback on their progress, but it can also act as positive reinforcement for the child and may increase confidence. Moreover, it may deter a child from continuing to respond to problems in a way that yields incorrect answers by detecting mistakes which in turn may prevent them from reinforcing the incorrect method by continued practice. Its usefulness for a child checking their work can also be extended if they are developing their own non-standard methods of completing problems, for example, long division.

For the teacher, children's work with calculators may be used to assist their diagnostic assessment. These opportunities may be heightened if children are encouraged to think carefully about how to record their work. If the calculator is doing the 'straight-forward' working out, the teacher may see whether or not the child has grasped the underlying mathematical principle or principles. Such work will also shed light on whether a child has the ability to 'translate' from a real-life situation, to the needed calculation, and to apply the answer back into the situation.

Baroness Blatch (Minister of State for Education, February 1993) expressed her fear that 'instead of learning how to add up, children are being taught how to use a calculator .' With the Numeracy Strategy, children are not only learning how to add up, but are encouraged to utilise a full range of mental strategies. The appropriate use of calculators alongside, not in place of oral and mental work, should encourage greater numeracy still, the calculator being used as a tool for investigating number and not as a substitute for skills and strategies.

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