It is no secret that I have been a “calculators in the classroom” supporter for many, many years.  Unfortunately, I must admit that despite my efforts, I have had very few converts outside of certain high school classes.  I have often felt like poor little Ralphie in A Christmas Story.  Except that instead of,  “You’ll shoot your eye out,” my hopes were constantly being dashed by,  “If they can’t use them on the CRCT, then they can’t have them in class.”

It was almost like a grade 3-8 mantra.

Even what I considered to be my silver bullet counter rarely had any effect, “Well, students can’t break out a microscope during the science test, they can’t refer back to novels during the ELA tests, and they can’t even use the internet during the social studies test.  So, should we ban those resources from classroom use so we can adequately prepare these kids for those test environments as well?”

However, now that the Georgia Milestones Assessment has replaced the CRCT, and allows students as young as elementary school to use a calculator on certain sections of the state math assessment, it’s a whole new world.  Schools and teachers from all over that previously treated calculators in the classroom with near No Tolerance severity, are beating down the doors to get these now indispensable classroom necessities in the hands of their students.

Despite how I feel about the reasoning, I think this breakthrough is great.  However, the key component of this upcoming influx of calculators in the classroom is to ensure that teachers know just how powerful an instructional tool a $15 scientific calculator can be.  (I won’t even begin to discuss the possibilities of graphing calculators or TI-Nspire handhelds)  Math teachers should be thinking of these calculators exactly like science teachers do microscopes, and literature teachers do novels, and social studies teachers do internet resources, a teaching tool rather than a testing tool.

Calculator-based labs are excellent activities to help students see mathematics very quickly and develop generalities much more effectively than paper-and-pencil drill-and-practice.  I’m not saying that students can’t learn math through drill-and-practice.  Multitudes of students have been given no other choice but to learn math that way, and have been successful.  I just happen to have first hand experience that proves calculator-based labs can produce the same or better understanding in less time with more student engagement and interest.

Take this very simple example of a basic calculator lab.  It could actually be done with a basic four-function calculator.


I see an opportunity in calculator labs like this one for students to own mathematics, to think mathematically, and to be a mathematician.  I see value in this use of a calculator as a tool.  Value that does not take a huge investment of time.  These labs offer easy differentiation.  How often do you hear those two words together in a sentence?  Students that want to expand the generalization can do so quickly, and often do without teacher direction.  They get captivated by the beauty of mathematical organization, and they begin to see structure where they once saw nothing more than arbitrary rules and randomized tables handed over them along with expectations to blindly trust that they work and robotically set them to memory.

The example given is among the simplest form of calculator labs.  For more in-depth labs you can go to this page by Texas Instruments where you can search for calculator activities that match the model calculator and content that you have at hand.  TI also has teacher guides that can be very helpful for learning just how powerful an instructional tool your specific model happens to be.

If you are interested in learning more about using calculators as instructional tools or want to develop some specific ones to use in your class, email the STEAM Integration Specialist or leave a comment below.