Maths experts say primary tests calculator ban is a backwards step

Calculator ban is a “backwards step” with no evidence it will raise maths standards in primary schools, according to leading academics from top universities.

A number of leading academic maths experts are warning the ban on calculators in this weeks’ primary maths tests is a backwards step and say there is a wealth of research showing calculators help and don’t hinder pupils’ maths achievement including in mental arithmetic.

The academics and researchers from the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, King’s College London and Cambridge Assessment were contacted by the Education Media Centre, and asked to highlight the evidence that disallowing the use of calculators improves understanding of maths and attainment; the international comparisons on this and evidence that having to work problems on paper or in your head leads to better understanding of and attainment in maths.


According to Anne Watson, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics Education at Oxford University:

“There is a substantial amount of good evidence on calculators in schools, mainly from the US, and none of it shows their use is detrimental to pupils’ learning.

In fact, students who use calculators regularly in lessons score as high or higher in tests, taken without calculators, compared to those who do not.

A summary of more than fifty research studies confirm this result and also shows that students who have been using calculators as an integral part of their learning have better attitudes towards maths.

On the whole, the use of calculators as an integral mathematical tool has been shown to be beneficial, particularly in the development of mathematical problem solving. It is a pity that current policy is retrogressive in this respect.”

Terezinha Nunes , Professor of Educational Studies also at Oxford University echoes that:

“Removing national tests where pupils can use calculators will place greater emphasis on the testing of calculation skills and less on the assessment of mathematical reasoning. I think one can safely say that is a step backwards.

Research shows children’s achievement in maths is influenced by both their ability to do calculations, that is sums, and their competence in mathematical reasoning, that is knowing how to solve problems to do with relative quantities, such as weight, volume and distance.

Tests allowing calculators are appropriate to assess pupils’ maths reasoning. That is not a test of their calculation skills, and although both play a part, research shows quite clearly mathematical reasoning is more important for achievement in Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3 than the ability to calculate.”

Professor of Mathematics Education, at King’s College London, Margaret Brown, also confirms evidence calculators can help pupils’ maths attainment including their grasp of mental arithmetic:

“There has been a large-scale experiment in which some schools were asked to focus on mental arithmetic and calculator use and not to teach standard written methods of calculation.

At the end of primary education, students who had followed such a curriculum were better at mental arithmetic and more willing to calculate mentally, employing relatively powerful and efficient strategies. ​They scored at least as well in standard tests as children who did not use calculators.

This was in line with research in other countries that suggested that calculator use did not have a detrimental effect on mental calculation.”

A leading expert on the role of calculators, Ken Ruthven, Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge confirms there is no good evidence that banning calculators is the key factor in countries which do well in maths:

“The arguments that have been put forward for change are not convincing.

First, the evidence available from research supports an appropriate use of calculators in mathematics education, indicating they often enhance children’s mathematical capability. Second, the comparisons that have been made with other countries’ educational systems overlook the many other factors likely to be far more influential on children’s mathematical performance, than their policies on the use of calculators.

As well as making calculation more efficient and reliable, calculators allow people to tackle mathematical problems in new ways. Making intelligent use of tools such as these underpins a great deal of the mathematics that is done in our contemporary world.”

Singapore has recently re introduced calculators for older primary school pupils, according to Jeremy Hodgen, Professor of Maths Education at King’s College London:

“The evidence suggests that in primary school the use of calculators is beneficial provided children are taught to use calculators alongside other methods. Indeed, when taught with calculators, children’s understanding and fluency increased and they used calculators less.

In international surveys, countries that ban calculators tend to perform worse than others. As a result, Singapore has recently re-introduced calculators in upper primary schools.

Many children not only find formal procedures like long division and long multiplication confusing but also that they rarely use the methods taught in school to solve problems .

On the other hand, approaches from US and Netherlands that develop meaning and focus on developing children’s own methods have had considerable success.”

Tim Oates, Group Director for Assessment Research& Development at Cambridge Assessment highlights other research reaching similar conclusions:

“The evidence indicates the key to the impact of calculators in maths education is how they are used not whether they are used.

Studies comparing countries suggest neither those which ban calculators nor those which don’t limit their use come top of international rankings.Top ranking countries give calculators a carefully managed place in learning and assessment.

Other research evidence also suggests maths education can be enriched through the use of calculators and technology, but only if it is carefully managed.

For example, there are good studies which have found technology is being used for rapid acquisition of mathematical ideas: pupils can do five calculations and compare the results rather than taking ages to do one; pupils can play with data on graphs and immediately see what happens when parameters are changed.

All this is good maths education, but the research suggests, used inappropriately, and without attending to the underlying development of technique and understanding, technology can inhibit rather than enhance maths learning.”


Notes:The “large scale experiment” referred to by Professor Brown is the work of Kenneth Ruthven, Professor of Education, University of Cambridge.

Professor Hodgen`s comments here are drawn from the following pieces of research, more detail can be provided on request: (Ruthven, 1998). Hodgen, 2012 (Brown, Askew, Baker, Denvir, & Millett, 1998). Fennema, et al., 1996; Streefland, 1991).

The international comparisons referred to by Tim Oates’ were carried out by Professor Jeremy Hodgen at King’s College London. Professor Dame Celia Hoyles and Professor Richard Noss both of the Institute of Education, London University, & London Knowledge Lab carried out the research into the impact of using technology on maths education.

In 2012, Education Minister, Elizabeth Truss, announced calculators would be banned in maths tests for 11-year-olds from 2014. Until this year these Key stage 2 tests included a mental arithmetic paper, one maths paper where calculators were used and one where calculators were allowed.


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