Brits ban calculators in primary school

Britain will ban calculators in elementary school to give children time to learn arithmetic.

Schools minister Nick Gibb said: “Without a solid grounding in arithmetic and early maths in primary school, children go on to struggle with basic maths skills throughout their school careers.”

Nearly half of British adults have the numeracy skills expected of children aged nine to 11, according to a government survey. They have difficult comparing prices and paying bills.

The quiz measures skills expected of the average 11-year-old:

The Government's maths quiz: How does your maths compare with the average 11 year old? average 11 year old?

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  1. tim-10-ber says:

    I believe this should be the norm in the US, too…have never understood why teachers don’t teach basic math and help kids master it…thankfully the use of calculators in my district started after my kids left elementary and middle school

    • Mark Roulo says:

      …have never understood why teachers don’t teach basic math and help kids master it…

      Some, maybe many, maybe most do. Or at least try to do so.

      But the 1989 “Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics” published by the National Council of Teacher’s of Mathematics (NTCM) is the starting point for a lot of modern K-8 (and maybe K-12) math textbooks. I don’t think this document defines “basic math” and “master” the same way you do.

      Some examples:

      page 66: “Basic skills today and in the future mean far more than computational proficiency. Moreover, the calculator renders obsolete much of the complex paper-and-pencil proficiency traditionally emphasized in mathematics courses … If students have not been successful in ‘mastering’ basic computational skills in previous years, why should they be successful now, especially if the same methods that failed in the past are merely repeated? In fact, considering the effect of failure on students’ attitudes, we might argue that further efforts toward mastering computational skills are counterproductive.”

      The same document has nice lists of things that it would like to see emphasized more (e.g. p70 “Developing number sense”) and lists of things that it would like to see less time devoted to. On the list of ‘spend less time on’ for grades 5-8 we have:

      “Memorizing rules and algorithms.
      Practicing tedious paper-and-pencil computations
      Finding exact forms of answers.”

      The textbooks are driven by a group that doesn’t want the same thing out of K-12 education that you do. Some teachers will provide what you want anyway (or at least try!), but a lot of the textbooks don’t offer much support for what you want.

      That is why.

  2. Amen. Calculator use can start in HS (or algebra II for kids accelerated in MS)

  3. I am a college physics professor. I have to say that I am continually frustrated by students who do not know how to graph simple functions without their fancy graphing calculators… I personally took AP Calculus back in the 80s, and there were no graphing calculators. Today, even the damn AP exams lets students use graphing calculators. The depressing thing is, I teach engineering majors!

    Personally, there should be no calculators in any math class, elementary school through calculus! Calculators should be reserved for high school science classes only.

    As for the sample British math test… I don’t even think the average US high school kid could answer those questions.

    I don’t think every student needs to get to calculus by the end of high school… but it would be nice if high school students could master algebra I. Beyond that, for students who will not be pursuing math/science careers, schools should offer an APPLIED (no proofs) geometry/simple trig class and a probability/statistics class.

    • I have to say that I am continually frustrated by students who do not know how to graph simple functions without their fancy graphing calculators… I personally took AP Calculus back in the 80s, and there were no graphing calculators.

      That is nearly my situation as well. I myself have a graphing calculator, which I use for calculations rather than graphing. Setting the thing up for graphing even the simplest of equations is not intuitive, and I’d have to grab the stupid manual every time I wanted to graph something. It is just not worth it, yet my students look at me like I sprouted a second head whenever I tell them that it’s easier (for me, at any rate) to sketch the graph on my own rather than use the calculator.

      I do like the calculator’s functions for matrix operations, though – row reducing matrices is tedious beyond belief, and the calculator is a welcome improvement for those of us who know the procedure and tend to get bogged down in the gory details 😀

  4. If they ban calculators, how will elementary and liberal arts teachers know how many students are in their classes.

    • Now we see the real reason for class size reduction…so teachers can count their students just using their fingers and toes…..

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        I watched one of those home improvement shows on HGTV a while back that featured a 3rd grade teacher from a NYC public school. She wasn’t able to figure out how many square feet of carpet her 10’x12′ bedroom needed because she’s “not good at math.”

        Calculators are the least of our worries.

  5. If you can’t do it by hand, you’ll never learn to do it in your head. If you hear a talking head on TV say, “the US government spends about a million dollars a minute,” and you can do arithmetic in your head, you can think:

    * there are 1440 minutes in a day, so that’s about a billion and a half dollars a day
    * that would be 500-600 billion a year
    * they are wrong, the actual number is several million per minute

    If you can’t do this in your head, it will never get done. No one watches TV with a calculator in their hand.

    It has gone on long enough that you have to wonder if we aren’t *deliberately* failing to educate our young. I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, but I don’t know how else to explain the way we screwed up something as important as education as badly as we did.

    The ability to estimate and calculate in your head is critically important if you want to be able to do anything more complicated than watching TV in your parent’s basement.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      Maybe the people designing curriculums don’t do this sort of thing to check claims. They wouldn’t notice if the math education approach they advocate loses this capability because they don’t do it. And often things one doesn’t do are undervalued (e.g. Typical engineer opinion of sales and marketing).

  6. Well, I went to public school when the affordable (read about $100 in late 70’s dollars) scientific calculator came on the market (the old TI-55), and all the calculator or computer in the world won’t help you if you don’t know math basics either by memorization or by using pencil and paper (or marker and whiteboard).

    Banning calculators until at least Algebra II/Trig makes sense to me, and in reading the ‘Dummies’ series recently for Calculus makes one remember how to set up and solve problems the old fashioned way.

    Could you imagine what would happen if all of the technology that ‘society’ is accustomed to simply stopped working? I’ve seen what happens in a restaurant with no computer to process orders, and it wasn’t pretty at all.

    Being unable to figure out basic sales tax and tips is indeed a harrowing experience with no electrical power available (and no calculator). I’m glad I learned how to do math the old fashioned way…

    It’s a skill which has saved me a lot of money over the years.