Calculat*rs are dangerous!
Updated: Feb 24
Do you know the danger of the C-Word?
Yes, I call calculating devices “the C-Word”. As an educator of mathematics, I have a strong distaste for these machines when it comes to academics. For the sake of my students, I am going to censor the word calculat*r in this post.
The danger of calculat*rs in academia
I think there is a major problem with overuse of calculat*rs in academia. Unfortunately, even as early as elementary school, teachers are handing calculat*rs to their students to “teach” them basic arithmetic. Again in middle school, children are handed calculat*rs to “learn” how to graph. And the list goes on.
Education is about learning, which is about challenging yourself and practicing. I don’t know about you, but calculat*rs take almost no knowledge or practice to use. My graphing calculat*r hasn’t had batteries in it since 2011, but I still know how to use it. It is very straightforward. As such, since calculat*rs are not machines you need to practice using (kind of like we don’t need to practice using our cell phones); they do not belong in academia.
Sadly, many students quickly become dependent on their calculat*rs, due to their ease of use. You don’t want to take the time to calculate 143*139, so you pull out your calculat*r and now you don't have to think. Then you see an easier problem like 24*38, which you might as well do on a calculat*r, since it’s right there and doesn't require thought. (See how calculat*rs destroy friction?)
Soon enough you’re using a calculat*r for 3*6 and 7+4 just because you have a habit of mindlessly using the device instead of stopping to think for two seconds and do the problem on your own. Honestly, it takes more time to type 3*6 on a calculat*r than it does to compute it, but people still punch these basic expressions in all the time! (I promise, I've seen adults do this on numerous occasions.)
My experiences with calculat*rs
My experiences with calculat*rs are pretty negative. Of course, I occasionally had to use them in my education (you might be surprised how rare it was though, as a math graduate!). I had to have a graphing calculat*r for Calculus 2, just because the teacher was like that, and I needed to use a computer algebra system for statistics and Galois Theory. That was it though. None of my other math courses in my undergrad or graduate program required them. Math has almost nothing to do with those infernal devices!
As such, my negative experiences with calculat*rs are not only my own. I was a college math tutor for quite some time and I observed first hand the danger of calculat*r dependence. I saw people who basically couldn’t tie their shoes without a calculat*r.
I have seen people type 3*0, 4*1, ½+½, 2*6, 4+6, 10-1, and all sorts of bone-headed obvious calculations in their devices. I truly hope that if they used their brains for two seconds that they could figure it out, though I honestly have met an adult who couldn’t figure out ½+½ after I took her calculat*r. She said that all her life, she had always used a calculat*r. She was never actually taught math! Why is our education system failing these people so badly?
There are many flaws with math education, that I won’t go into, but calculat*rs are not helping. We need to learn and practice the principles, not make robots do it for us.
Disclaimer on the usefulness of calculat*rs
I will admit, of course calculat*rs are useful. I wouldn’t want to compute compound interest without them, or use the Taylor Series to approximate a trig function when I’m working in the yard, but calculat*rs do not belong in academia. If your answer to a problem is sin(3) or ln(2), just leave it as sin(3) or ln(2). I think we can all trust that the students know how to punch that into a calculat*r. Plus, it’s much prettier and easier to grade, so I have no idea why teachers want to see answers like 1.7725.
My classroom culture
As a math educator, one of my goals is to give my students an aversion to calculat*rs so they will not use them without thinking. Most of the time, even if you can’t get an exact answer, you can approximate in your head pretty easily. My class never uses calculat*rs (except for certain probability questions and compound interest questions), but on tests they never need a calculat*r, because I allow leaving it in simplest form. I don’t care if they get an actual number; I just care if they can solve the problem.
To help drive the point across, in my classroom, calculat*r is a "curse word", so no one is allowed to say it. We call it the C-Word, when we refer to it, and we draw illustrations of destroying calculat*rs occasionally. If someone does say it, there are always audible gasps in the classroom and the student has to stand and say the C-Word Safety Chant:
The C-Word fad is really bad.
I must abstain to save my brain.
I’ll be a nerd with no C-Word.
Create your path with mental math.
I know this is silly, but hopefully it’ll be effective in shaping these kids’ way of thinking. I used to race against a boy in my Calculus 2 class to see if I could do an integral or computation in my head before he typed it in on his calculat*r. The funny thing is I usually won!
My professor was very happy I had the mental math skills and encouraged me to keep it up. She said she used to have the same skills and was very good at mental math back in her day, but then she started using calculat*rs and lost the skill.
Remember how I said you don’t need to practice using a calculat*r? Well you do need to practice using mental math!
I have found that my treatment of calculat*rs has helped me in my personal life. I will shamefully admit I used to pull one out when I filled up my gas tank so I could calculate my exact miles per gallon, but my aversion to calculat*rs has grown, so I estimate it in my head now. Really, I don’t need to know my gas mileage to five decimal places, so I just estimate with rounded numbers in my head. Those small things can make a big difference in sharpening your mental math skills.
For the love of Pete, watch yourself next time you reach for your calculat*r! Pause for ten seconds and try to do the computation in your head, or at least estimate it. If you are determined to use a calculat*r, at least do it in your head first so you can start practicing the skill of mental math.