The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Calculators

There is only one time in the year that my fourth graders use calculators in class: ISAT Week. The reason for this is actually fairly simple: we don’t need to use them.

Of course, that is a pretty loaded statement, so I’ll elaborate some:

In fourth grade, our focus in mathematics is first on developing operational fluency (being able to perform an operation quickly, accurately, and with understanding). We spend a very large portion of the year on multiplication: mastering the basic facts, understanding the algorithms for multiplying multi-digit numbers, and being able to model with pictures, manipulatives, and words what is going on in a multiplication problem. These are all skills that have to be done without the aid of a calculator. A calculator will give the answer, but that’s about all it is good for. And, as I’ve said before (and will surely say again), having the answer just simply is not enough. So we don’t use calculators in math.

Later on in the year, as we start to work more on identifying the necessary operations in a multi-step word problem, students could use calculators but, quite honestly, none of them have ever asked me, and I have felt no inclination to push it. I am much more interested in them honing their skills as they further develop their operational fluency. And, again, truth be told, the vast majority tell me during ISAT testing that having a calculator doesn’t really help, anyway. That being said, if I am assessing students on their ability to identify the correct operation and not specifically on finding the answer using a specific method, then I will be more than willing to make calculators available.

The other big area of focus for fourth grade is related to understanding fractions. We work on identifying fractions, ordering and comparing, finding equivalent fractions, simplifying fractions, adding and subtracting with like denominators, and multiplying by whole numbers. There are calculators that can help with some of these skills but, much like operational fluency, our fourth graders first need to understand what they are doing when they do it, and a calculator can’t explain that. So there’s just not much use for calculators!

And of course, that doesn’t even take into account other units, such as geometry and measurement. So, like I said, we don’t use calculators because we just don’t need them! Instead, we focus on comprehension, accuracy, fluency, and evaluation (the Math CAFE). Calculators are great tools for checking work and finding a quick answer. I use the calculator on my phone quite often. But I also know how to perform algorithms to find sums, differences, products, and quotients and I can use mental math to assess the reasonableness of the answer so that if I accidentally hit a wrong key, I can tell that the answer is wrong. And that, ultimately, is the biggest goal for me in terms of my students mathematical learning: evaluating an answer to understand if it makes sense or not.

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