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The Dumbing Down of the American Math Student


“Miss Williams, I can’t solve this equation without using a calculator”, said one of my 8th grade math students” while shaking the calculator in her hand. I slowly turned around to address the student who made the statement but the rest of the students in my 1st period 8th grade math summer school class began to chime in. Feeling a bit confused I began to ask the students for clarification by showing them how to solve an equation using the properties of equalities. The students looked mortified because they didn’t understand what I was doing and I quite frankly,didn’t understand why they didn’t understand.

I began to model how to solve more equations without using the graphing calculator, one of the female students who was attending summer school because of attendance during the school year was so confused that she just gave up. Needless to say my heart sank because I realized that because of their math teacher’s failure to lay the foundation for these students, high school math and science was going to a difficult task for them.

Like with most things I began to look for answers as to why the students were not being taught to solve equations by hand. Even though Texas did not adopt the Common Core Standards I found this video that was created by The Hunt’s Institute where a math professor talks about as a mathematician how math makes sense to him. He also talks about how the brightest math students are coming to college and can do a lot of things with Algebra but do not understand why it all fits together.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against using graphing calculators because there are a lot of benefits of calculator use in middle and high school; however I do disagree with how administrators are so focused on standardized test scores that they don’t question whether or not the math teachers are using best practices when teaching math using graphing calculators. In my opinion when students are taught to solve equations using a graphing calculator it teaches math students to have a blind faith in a calculator instead of their own ability to think and reason.

I asked the teachers in the Mathematics Education Research Facebook group whether or not solving equations using a graphing calculator was a new trend? Most of them said that it was not a new trend and wasn’t good idea to introduce solving equations to students this way.

Technology is an awesome tool because it supplements good teaching but technology should in no way supplant thinking and reasoning.


1 thought on “The Dumbing Down of the American Math Student”

  1. Michele Spitzmiller

    Solving an equation with a graphing calculator can be insightful or mindless depending on lesson and the student. I would also say that I have experienced students mindlessly solving an equation algebraically memorizing (and later forgetting) exactly the required steps. What looks like conceptual teaching may or may not depending on the receiver. I have found the blended approach of showing algebraic and graphical methods in concert has worked best by reaching more students. (not all, never all) Moreover, it starts to show math as one connected content area.

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