Does technology undermine math teaching?

Most of the best math teachers I know fear and loathe calculators, especially when students are allowed to use them in the early grades. Not only do calculators permit students to bypass the painful but – in their view – necessary step of memorizing math facts; calculators also seem to discourage students from developing the estimating skills that help them evaluate whether the answer that the calculator spits out makes any sense.

But what about other math technology applications? I used Explore Learning’s “math gizmoes” to help students visualize how new variables changed the shapes of graphs. I even wrote to the company encouraging them to develop some economics applications. My own kids blasted critters from outer space as they worked through elementary math (although in my home schooling years I banned calculators for most assignments up until Algebra 2.)

A recent article in Slate magazine seems to confirm this Luddite suspicion of calculators and other math technology aids. The author also praises older textbooks and old-fashioned proof-based geometry lessons – preferences that I share.

To whet your appetite, here are the first three paragraphs of the article.

When Longfellow Middle School in Falls Church, Va., recently renovated its classrooms, Vern Williams, who might be the best math teacher in the country, had to fight to keep his blackboard. The school was putting in new “interactive whiteboards” in every room, part of a broader effort to increase the use of technology in education. That might sound like a welcome change. But this effort, part of a nationwide trend, is undermining American education, particularly in mathematics and the sciences. It is beginning to do to our educational system what the transformation to industrial agriculture has done to our food system over the past half century: efficiently produce a deluge of cheap, empty calories.

I went to see Williams because he was famous when I was in middle school 20 years ago, at a different school in the same county. Longfellow’s teams have been state champions for 24 of the last 29 years in MathCounts, a competition for middle schoolers. Williams was the only actual teacher on a 17-member National Mathematics Advisory Panel that reported to President Bush in 2008.

Williams doesn’t just prefer his old chalkboard to the high-tech version. His kids learn from textbooks that are decades old—not because they can’t afford new ones, but because Williams and a handful of his like-minded colleagues know the old ones are better. The school’s parent-teacher association buys them from used bookstores because the county won’t pay for them (despite the plentiful money for technology). His preferred algebra book, he says, is “in-your-face algebra. They give amazing outstanding examples. They teach the lessons.”

See the full article on



  1. Bon Crowder

    I’m one of those math teachers. Very happy to use older books (or none at all) and chalkboards (or whiteboards).

    Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Mark Berg

    When doing complicated math, like Algebra 2, basic math facts are like sight words in reading. If you have to decode (sound out) each word separately, by the time you get to the end of the sentence, it’s hard to even remember what the beginning was about. And the longer the sentence, the fewer words you can afford to stop for. It’s the same in math: if you have to stop and use a tool (or finger count) for each fact, you get lost in big problems, especially when you are trying to listen and learn at the same time. Being fluent in the facts (fact fluency) is critical, and 2008 National Mathematics Advisory Panel promoted its importance. But memorization is considered boring, and so it has become politically incorrect, to the detriment of many many students. However, today there are many computerized means for assisting students with memorization, albeit, some are better than others;) That may tend to go against the Luddite premise. The real debate isn’t so much technology, friend or foe, but rather, memorization (and mental math): is it necessary? I would assert that it is.
    Mark Berg

  3. Benjamin Pacini

    @Mark–I completely agree.

    The issue is not technology, and it never will be. Good teaching happens on interactive white boards and on old-fashioned black boards. Buying a bad teacher a computer won’t make him into a great teacher. That’s why I don’t support technology mandates, but I do support technology in the classroom. Let teachers decide what works for them.

    I have done a lot with technology in the classroom that I couldn’t do without it.

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