My daughter asked me for a calculator, this morning. She has a math test today and is worried that the batteries in hers will die and she'll be lost. I asked what kind of calculation she needs to do and she explained that she is doing basic algebra so she needs something that can do multiplication and division.
I seem to recall, years ago, having to do those exact activities using a pencil and paper. So, before I mocked her mercilessly, or went to the teacher and said "why are you coddling these kids?" I started thinking my way through this. Here's what I have come up with.
If we assume that the math that my child is learning is of a type that forces her to think and work at, and that the computation, itself, is a less valuable skill as it would take up time from some higher order thinking that the actual math she is taught would demand, then it makes sense to allow her to use a technology to get that part out of the way so she can focus and use her time on the math section that pushes her brain. Also, since she must constantly be comfortable with electronic technology, maybe it makes sense to give her a timed assessment which demands that she use the calculator because that is a valuable skill, in and of itself. One can assume that the kids in the year 2500 will be doing calculus in third grade because their brains will have been stretched in that direction, and they will have machines which will do the basic trig quickly so the students can work on the tougher stuff.
That's all well and good, but then, I thought, why do we spend ANY time at all teaching the fundamental computations? Does my child need to spend hours doing rows of addition and subtraction problems? Is there an underlying understanding that is gained by this repetition? My child will be handed a calculator soon enough -- why waste time memorizing the multiplication tables?
I had two possible angles to play at this point: I could have seen this line of logic as ridiculous, as it hands over fundamental thinking skills to machines and ignores that we cannot wrap our minds around more complex concepts if we haven't cut our teeth on the basics. I could have pointed out that performing computations under timed conditions in High School is still a valid skill (regardless of the fact that the SAT's allow calculators) because we can never forget the basic skills which inform our later learning. But I decided not to do that.
I'm ready to give in. I'm ready to say that the formative skills, once mastered (and this, therefore, does not absolve anyone of the need to learn basic arithmetic and master it) can be handed off to electronica so that we can push the bounds of knowledge. In fact, i see this as instrumental in my new vision of education. If we abandon the archaic notion that students need to be repositories of facts, and instead, look at education as the process which nurtures abilities (not even just skills) then we can throw out the memorization of history, the textbook approach to the sciences and even any mandatory language instruction. A student who does not specialize in any of these areas will easily find a technology which can present the salient info, translate or compute whatever he needs. Put a student in a situation and tell him that a task must be completed, construct the task so as to tap into the areas of weakness or basic skills (for which he will use an assistive technology) and strengths for which he will exploit his problem solving and the higher levels of instruction which he has received.
Let's give kids the very basic instruction in grades 1-3 and then hand them a calculator in grade 4 and say "learn to use this and we can do incredibly advanced things." And if we can find an analogue in other disciplines, maybe we should. Start students in instructional programs which make them DO instead of simply KNOW and allow them to exploit whatever technology will help them. Teach them to be MacGyvers, taking advantage of what is around them.
Does this mean substantially reinventing the education system? Yup. Does it mean abandoning conventions and conventional notions of assessment, success, learning and instruction? Yup. Will it be easy? Nope. But either we demand that they know the basic things we teach and perform them all the way through (we don't stop teaching spelling even though they have spell-check installed because we see value in that practice all the way through their education), or we give them the grounding and then move on (and ignore spellling instruction because they will have the spell-check to rely on, so we can focus on the words, not the letters).