Calculators 'don't hinder maths learning'

A little help from a calculator with even basic sums has little effect on the progress that children make in maths once they have a fundamental grasp of the subject, US researchers have found.

Psychologists from Vanderbilt University compared how well third grade students aged between 8 and 9 performed in a multiplication test immediately after they had spent a lesson working on similar questions. Some prepared by simply punching numbers into a calculator while others worked the answers out for themselves.

The researchers found that the calculator's effect on subsequent performance depended on how much the students knew to begin with. For those students who already had some multiplication skills, using the calculator before taking the test had no impact. But for those who were not good at multiplying, use of the calculator had a negative impact on their performance.

"These findings suggest that it is important children first learn how to calculate answers on their own, but after that initial phase, using calculators is a fine thing to do, even for basic multiplication facts," said Bethany Rittle-Johnson, assistant professor of psychology in Vanderbilt's Peabody College of education and human development.

"For students who did not know many multiplication facts, generating the answers on their own, without a calculator, was important and helped their performance on subsequent tests. But for students who already knew some multiplication facts, it didn't matter - using a calculator to practice neither helped nor harmed them."

Alexander Kmicikewycz, who carried out the research as part of his degree at Vanderbilt and co-authored a paper on the results to be published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, is now a teacher in New York City.

"The study indicates technology such as calculators can help kids who already have a strong foundation in basic skills," Kmicikewycz said. "So much of how you teach depends on how you market the material - presentation is very important to kids. Many of these students had never used a calculator before, so it added a fun aspect to math class for them."

Another benefit of calculators is that they let students check the answers they have come up with for themselves, giving them immediate feedback and more time for practice, Rittle-Johnson added.

A paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this month described how children in indigenous Australian communities whose languages lack words or gestures for numbers are still able to demonstrate numeracy skills based on quantity and spatial concepts that are as strong as those of their English-speaking counterparts.

Researchers from the University of Melbourne and University College London visited a group of Warlpiri speakers in the Tanami Desert, north west of Alice Springs, and Anindilyakawa speakers from Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria and a group of indigenous preschool children from Melbourne.

Professor Bob Reeve, from the University of Melbourne's School of Behavioural Science, says the study strongly contradicts previous research which claimed people need a language with ‘counting words’ to develop number skills, and has strong implications for the way numeracy is taught.

It could also help to explain why some children struggle with basic numeracy skills.

“This study shows that number abilities are not simply based on culture or language,”' Reeve said. “Our findings are consistent with the idea that we have an innate system for representing quantity ideas and that the lack of number words in a language should not prevent us from completing simple number and computation tasks.”

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