Arithmetic, Calculators, and Work
By Bobby Neal Winters
Let me start out by saying that I am not now and never have been any good at arithmetic. Something goes wrong in my brain when I trying to multiply number two numbers together. I do have a good memory and I can remember things like 5 times 5 is 25 and 25 times 5 is 125 and 5 times 125 is 625. And I can use this to remember that one-half is 0.5, one-fourth is 0.25, one-eighth is 0.125, and one-sixteenth is 0.0625.
But this is something that I’ve learned from years of teaching mathematics. For most things, I resort to a calculator and have since they were invented. Yes, young people, if there are any of you out there, I am that old.
I am so helpless with arithmetic, that I am the reason my high school accounting teacher, Mr. Billy R. Scott, began the practice of allowing his students to use calculators. Yes, I am that bad.
Needless to say, I’ve allowed students to use them as long as I’ve been in front of the classroom. True, many of the classes I teach are so theoretical that calculators are of dubious value, but I allow their use anyway.
And to tell you the truth, I’ve not really worried about it very much for the last 29 years. Yes, I have been teaching math for that long because, yes, I am that old.
But recently there’s been a problem. Student’s are having problems reading their calculators. You see, here’s the thing about calculators: you’ve got to learn how to use them.
When I teach now, I tell my students to develop a loving, mutually supportive relationship with their calculators. You can’t just ignore it for a month and expect it to perform for you on the morning of the test. You only get out of it what you put into it.
Even though I was a bust with arithmetic, I could make a calculator sing. I could do things with it that the folks who made it didn’t know about. Back in those days, and maybe yet, teachers put questions on tests that required arithmetic that the calculator couldn’t do like exact answers with no decimals.
I could do those on the calculator because I was that good. I was that good because I spent time on it. Somehow, the chicks didn’t dig it, though.
You wouldn’t dream of waiting to the day of recital to play your piece on the piano for the first time; you wouldn’t think about climbing behind the wheel of a car for the first time on the day of the test for your license; why would you even think about not turning on your calculator until the day of the test?
I look back at that and see the bit about the recital. There are a lot of student’s who’ve not had that experience. I never did. I only think of it because my kids--my middle-class kids--have. They’ve had recitals and calculators and computers. They’ve had parents harping at them to practice as well, and I do know that you can hear parental harping at a distance, even from beyond the grave.
Many of the students I teach haven’t had any of those things. This isn’t an excuse. They’ve got an opportunity to go to college now and it’s my job to be a navigator.
I chose that metaphor pretty carefully. Students have to do the work themselves. They have to care themselves. I can’t work for them. I can’t care for them.
I can navigate them along a path that I’ve followed successfully myself. I can mark the finish line. They have to run.