Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


Sign of the times

File under: Those Who Can't, Queen of Sciences. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 5:32 pm.

I’ve bemoaned my students’ inability to do simple mathematics many times on these pages; I’ll spare you a rerun. Suffice it to say that by and large, my younger students - all of whom are less than a decade my junior - have been weaned on calculators, and consequently, an appalling number of them can’t multiply integers or add fractions in their heads, or even on paper.

What has surprised me is the number of students who have expressed to me that they feel cheated by their education. I’ve had a good half dozen students tell me that they wish they had not been given calculators so early. “If I hadn’t been allowed to use a calculator at such a young age, I would be able to multiply simple fractions together and add double-digit numbers,” said one student in what has become a typical conversation. “It’s ridiculous - and students today are allowed using calculators while they’re learning to add!”

But then she continued, in all seriousness: “I think that students shouldn’t be allowed to use calculators in math class until at least grade four.”


  1. I don’t get why they can’t learn to do simple arithmetic without a calculator now. it’s just a copout to complain about the past, when they can do something about it now.

    - Jen — 11/22/2004 @ 7:44 pm

  2. It seems really strange that all these schools are apparently letting kids use calculators in the early grades. I didn’t get to use a calculator in math until I was in high school. I thought it was like that everywhere. I believe the theory was that if you had a calculator when you were learning math in the lower grades (say, up through 7th or 8th grade) you would use it as a crutch to get by without learning the actual math. Can such a self-evident principle really have been thrown out by so many elementary schools?

    I wonder how much of your students’ problems with elementary math might stem from the fact that the groups you teach are not randomly sampled from the population of college students in general. In other words, could it be that those who enroll in your classes are almost necessarily poor at math, otherwise they would be taking a more advanced math class like Calculus? I bet this could account for at least some of the math problems you’ve observed.

    Note: I’m not knocking people who don’t have good enough math skills to enroll in higher-level college math courses. There is, after all, my own publicly witnessed failure to solve the maximization problem (with all its tricky fractions) from the 11/12 post.

    - wes — 11/22/2004 @ 10:30 pm

  3. I think you mean they =haven’t= been weaned on calculators.

    And you know what I think about calculators:
    tirade against calculators

    - meep — 11/23/2004 @ 2:44 am

  4. wes: “Can such a self-evident principle really have been thrown out by so many elementary schools?”
    You don’t want to know the answer to that one.

    - dave — 11/23/2004 @ 11:21 am

  5. wes, I believe TDM has taught Calculus before (as a TA, at least), and I know I have.

    Here’s a question someone asked on the first day of a Calc class I was a note-taker for:
    On the blackboard was “L = 2L” and the prof then said “…so L=0″

    Hand up, immediately: “Why can’t L=1?”

    Kids are getting decent scores on the math portion of the SAT, are getting achievement scores high enough to be placed into Calculus at NYU (and we did have lower level classes than Calc. I taught a few.) The kids in calculus do have better math skills than those in basic math, but that just means they know their times tables. They suck just as much at adding fractions. And you have to review basic algebra concepts, like how to graph a line. And forget about solving quadratic equations.

    Yes, MIT’s calculus students don’t have this problem. But we’re not talking about super-selective schools here (from what I’ve seen, NYU is not a selective undergrad school.)

    - meep — 11/24/2004 @ 3:53 am

  6. Rosie O’Donnell : “we have computers [and] no longer need to know why 3 x 2y/4″ [Newsweek? it’s posted on a math professor’s door at NYU]

    - Sam — 11/25/2004 @ 11:46 pm

  7. Meep- Your point is well taken, but I still think that the presence of a group of people who lack basic math skills (adding fractions, multiplying single-digit integers, etc.) is explained, at least partially, by the fact that such a group of students is a non-random sampling of college students at large. The real question here is not does a problem with basic math skills exist (it certainly does, in some students) but rather how pervasive is the problem.

    Incidentally, I was joking, in my comment, about the “tricky fractions” part.

    - wes — 11/26/2004 @ 6:32 pm

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