He sits with his pencil in one hand and his furrowed brow in the other. There’s no glimmer in his eye; I see only desperation. In front of him, there’s a math problem that he could have solved last year but today looks foreign to him.
He looks up at me. “Can I use a calculator?”
I hesitate. This time it’s my brow furrowing as I internally wrestle with myself.
He’s clearly not retaining what he studied last year. Where have I gone wrong? If I let him use a calculator, is he really going to learn it this time? Will he retain it this time?
Maybe the step he’s calculating with pencil and paper isn’t actually teaching him anything. Maybe it’s actually decreasing how much he retains and how much he enjoys the process because it’s just so tedious. Is it really going to hurt him to work quickly through this step with help from a machine?
I think back to my brilliant high school math teacher and wish like hell I could ask his advice. What would Mr. Gray do?
I love math. It comes naturally to me. It’s a game. A puzzle that I can’t wait to solve. That excitement blinds me to how difficult simple math can seem to someone who just isn’t a “math person”.
I’m still debating in that couple of seconds I have before I need to answer him. What’s more important? That he is able to use logic to determine the steps of solving this problem? Or that he’s able to put pencil to paper and spend large amounts of time doing exactly what his phone calculator can do in an instant?
I decide that day that the problem solving skills he’s developing will benefit him more in adulthood than rote learning ever will.
“Yes, you can use your calulator.”
He smiles with relief and that day’s math lesson goes by quickly for once.
I’m relieved that he’s relieved and thrilled with the time and stress we’ve saved, but I’m still doubting my decision. I wonder if I’ve done more harm than good by granting his wish.
The math nerd in me just really, really wants to see him work step-by-step through solving basic equations. Is that pure selfishness or is he, too, getting something out of this lengthy process that he considers pure torture.
I remind myself that he doesn’t have to love math. I just really don’t want him to hate it.
This morning, I watched this video and it gave me some clarity. It’s a 17-minute TED talk. If you can’t watch it now, bookmark it for later this evening or tomorrow’s morning coffee time.
I can now clearly determine during which lessons and on which steps I will allow my son to use his calculator. It will be more often than not, especially as he’s able to prove that he knows just what steps need to be taken. That is what matters to me as his teacher. I want to see critical thinking skills rather than endless worksheets, scratch paper, and calculations.
So, fellow homeschoolers and teachers, I’d really like to hear from you. How often do you let your children use their calculators and how do you make that decision? What do you consider the “basics” that he mentions in the video and how much weight do those basics carry in your math lessons?