The useless paper vs. computer debate

I just lost 18min of my prep time for Monday watching a Wolfram Alpha researcher give a talk on whether or not using W|A for homework is “cheating”.  The loss was that by the end, the talk had devolved into a false dichotomy of hand calculations vs. computer-based calculations.

I agree that we need to integrate tech like W|A into our classrooms, and more importantly into our assessments.  I also agree that to reach that point, we need to re-evaluate what the goals of hand-calculations are in math curriculum, and probably need to make serious cuts.

The problem of the all-or-nothing is that that kind of thinking has already been abused for years.  Elementary educators who struggle with math anxiety have used the arguments against “rote learning” as an excuse for purely calculator-based arithmetic training.  These students then get passed along and struggle with later work where it’s assumed that you can simply spot common factors because you’re familiar with your multiplication tables.

Does this matter?  Here’s the real problem: any career / lifestyle will carry with it some level of implicitly required mathematical ability in which you don’t want to pull out a computer or even your freaking iPod calculator.  This varies wildly depending on your career, from trades to warehouse work to core math skills as an engineer, but in every lifestyle some amount of rote learning and mental algorithmic skill is irreplaceable.  Math education needs to elevate people’s numeracy to an appropriate level for their life.

This isn’t just an argument for paper-based work; I want to see estimation actually taught well for once.  (Textbooks are inherently horrible at teaching estimation.)

So, don’t pretend this is all-or-nothing.  Admit it’s messy.  Then let’s dive into the real work of figuring out just how much is trash that we need to throw away.

* I’m throwing around big words because it’s quicker, easier, and I have a 1.5-yr-old next to me waiting for me to get off the computer and take him outside.  Sorry.

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One thought on “The useless paper vs. computer debate

  1. Pingback: 2010 in review « josh g.’s notes

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