02 May 2008

Mental Crutches

This past week across the state of Texas, students took a set of tests called the TAKS. All students must pass four TAKS tests in their junior year in order to graduate. Retests during a student’s senior year are not uncommon. The four tests cover English, social studies, science, and math. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the math and science tests are the most difficult for students.

All students are allowed and encouraged to use school-provided calculators on the math and science tests.

For many students, the calculators are a must. This is not true only for creating graphs of mathematical functions but also for relatively simple actions, like multiplying two three-digit numbers. More than a few students have told me that such multiplication takes too much time. Not to belittle students in any shape or form, but that’s shorthand for the student having little confidence in his or her ability to perform the action properly without an electronic aid. Indeed, it is a sign that the student relies on the calculator to perform the action for them.

This lack of confidence spills over, then, to more complicated actions like graphing functions. I’ve never learned to use a graphing calculator – nor do I ever want to. In my opinion, learning how to push certain buttons on a specific calculator to achieve a graph is akin to learning functions on any other specialized machine; it is only good as long as I have that machine to work with. It is not knowledge, really. It’s memorization of a computer procedure.

Sad, then, that addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division may theoretically go down the same low road. If they are not practiced without mental crutches consistently, the skills atrophy. That we have high school students experiencing such atrophy is a comment on the educational process, the proper use of technology, and true educational rigor.

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