We’re trying out a new maths program with my boys. Ben called me for help on a question and we kept getting it wrong.

The question was about selecting factors of 48. There were several numbers to choose and we kept missing one of them out. So I got my calculator out to double check an answer. I’m not embarrassed to say my 16 times tables are a bit rusty!

Ben then said, ‘That’s cheating mum!’.

I said, ‘No, it’s not.’

Why do schools have this big thing against using calculators to help with standard/straightforward maths? Why is it wrong? Why do we have this fixation that learning is about being able to memorise or quickly calculate relatively simple sums in our heads? Or being able to long calculate sums on paper.

I can’t remember the last time I used long division or multiplication on paper in real life. Erm, perhaps it’s probably because I haven’t. If I want to divide something then I use a calculator or a spreadsheet. I then usually check the answer to make sure it looks and feels right.

In real life (now) if you need an answer then you figure out the most effective and perhaps quickest way to find it out. The important thing (I believe) is to get to the right answer in an acceptable amount of time. If getting a calculator out means you get to the right answer quicker, then use a calculator! I seriously dislike wasting time. I like using tools. I like researching subjects as and when I need to.

Does it really matter how you get to the final answer? Does it make sense to make people feel dumb if they can’t calculate it in their head?

Using a calculator is not cheating. Just like using the internet is not cheating. They are skills to be learned. Very important ones too. Ones that don’t get covered enough at school.

The main reason schools “have this big thing against using calculators to help with standard/straightforward maths” is discernment. No-one disputes that it’s great that we can use a tool (a calculator, the internet) to more quickly find an answer, but without the skills that tool is replacing, how do you discern the quality of that answer? The difference is between using a tool, and in being a slave to the tool; without a good grounding in the core skills that the tool replaces (i.e. good mental maths skills), you are much closer to the latter.

I’m all for balance, but it feels wrong to call using a calculator cheating. It labels it as bad and makes kids feel stupid if they want to use one. If a calculator can help them process, understand and figure out problems (which will then help them do them mentally), then why label using a calculator as cheating?

I did some storytelling using maths recently and we used a calculator to help us with the numbers, look at what number we got to – http://www.flickr.com/photos/rosiesherry/9459214149/

I also think you are missing out on a lot of fun. I enjoy working out that actually, you do know the 16 times table, because 16 = 2 x 8, so it’s just 2 x the 8 times table. That means that 9 x16 actually is 9 x 8 = 72 x 2= 144. And oh look, that’s 12 x 12, because you can break it down as 9 x 16 = 3×3 x 4×4, rearranged is 3 x 4 x 3 x 4 = 12 x 12. The same thing works in reverse. If 48 divides by 2 to leave 24, and 24 divides by 8, that means 48 must divide by 8 x 2 = 16.

Yes, I still use a calculator, but I really enjoy doing that kind of mental gymnastics, and if I always used a calculator I would never have spotted half of those relationships. Plus it’s a very useful skill at the end of restaurant meals, or in my knitting (how many times does a pattern repeat fit in the number of stitches I have), or even just in getting the ballpark feel for whether my calculated answer is right.

Fun is a matter or perspective though? Perhaps someone can have just as much fun exploring within a calculator? And why can’t a calculator help you find those relationships? If you choose to? If it helps bring confidence to the person learning (rather than getting stuck or having to ask for help – which many kids don’t like to do in a classroom setting).

I’m all for mental maths. I just don’t agree that tools like calculators and the internet should be perceived as cheating. There should be more balance.