Texas Instruments Graphing calculators – essential math teaching aid, or a scam?

Last September regular readers of 2020 Science will recall that I was somewhat taken aback at having to fork out $100 for a Texas Instruments graphing calculator as my son started 7th grade math.

One academic year on, was the purchase worth it? (Yes, despite my shock, we did reluctant acquiesce to the school’s dictate and fork out the $100 on a TI-83 graphing calculator).

Did it boost my son’s IQ to dizzying new heights?  Did it make all the difference between genius and dunce in his Algebra I Honors class?  Did it actually help him learn?

I asked him.

Me: So, Alex, how was math with your handy dandy Ti-83 graphing calculator?

Alex: I never used it.

Me? What?!!

Alex: It broke moths ago (exasperated parent look at this point!).  Anyway, we never used them in class.

Me: What, never?

Alex:  We didn’t really do anything that needed a calculator.

A little shocked at this revelation, I turned to my Daughter.  She’s just finished 9th grade pre-International Baccalaureate Geometry, and also has a mandatory Ti-83 graphing calculator.

Me: So, Jade, surely you used your calculator in math this year?

Jade: Sure.

Me: (relieved – this was a $100 investment after all):  Great.  What did you use it for?

Jade: Some addition.  We used the Sin, Cos and Tan keys a bit.  Occasionally I used it to multiply numbers by Pi.

Me:  … (that’s the sound of a gobsmacked parent picking themselves up from the floor!)

Last September, I asked Alex’s math teacher how essential this required purchase was.  His response?  The stuff we do this year, you could do it all on a calculator you got from a bubble gum machine! I liked this guy already! (He also turned out to be a kick-ass math teacher).

As it turned out, Alex doesn’t recall one single lesson where they actually used a calculator – of any sort.

But the TI-83 or TI-84 graphing calculator was still a required piece of kit.  The school supplied list stated categorically that

“ALL Algebra I and Algebra I Honors are REQUIRED to purchase a TI-83 plus or TI-84 calculator”

So I turned to the school principle.

She informed me that the Texas Instruments graphing calculators we essential for the algebra courses.  Questioned about Alex’s math teacher – who actually advised me against purchasing a TI calculator – I was told he was such a smart guy that he didn’t need the calculators to teach math… but that the same couldn’t be said for the other math teachers.

I’m still trying to make sense of that one.

She also pointed out that the TI graphing calculators are essential for the Standards Of Learning (SOL) tests that the students take each year.

That was last September.  This morning while writing this, I asked my daughter whether she had needed the calculator in her 9th grade math SOL.  As it turns out, the 9th grade students taking the math SOL were each provided with a TI-83 calculator.

And what did she use it for in the exam?  “A little bit of addition.”  That’s it.

I asked Alex the same question.  Turns out he was also provided with a TI-83 calculator in his SOL.  He used it for doing sums he couldn’t be bothered with doing in his head or on paper.  That’s it.

In his words, the calculator wasn’t needed.

Both kids passed their SOLs with flying colors by the way, despite not using the TI-83 as anything more sophisticated than a glorified abacus.

So why is Fairfax County VA insisting on kids’ parents forking out for a calculator that is many times more expensive and complex than is needed for the math courses being taken?

Beats me!

In the meantime, the school supply list still states that

ALL Algebra I and Algebra I Honors are REQUIRED to purchase a TI-83 plus or TI-84 calculator.

With over 9,000 students moving up a grade in the Fairfax County school system next September, that’s a bucket load of calculators parents will be purchasing that are, in all probability, not going to be used.

Texas Instruments must be laughing all the way to the bank!


End Notes

I should be clear that I have nothing against the TI graphing calculators – they have their fan base, and there are plenty of people who get great satisfaction from using them.  But I do object to students being locked in to one make of calculator that, by all accounts is far more sophisticated than is needed (As a number of people have pointed out, there are other makes of graphing calculator, and some rather smart iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad apps now available..  Bot none of these are allowed in school systems that are locked in with Texas Instruments calculators). I also have grave concerns about curricula that depend on an outmoded technology to teach stuff that can either be done with pencil and paper, or on a computer.  And call me old-fashioned, but I thought that good math teaching was all about developing mental skills and understanding, not how to press buttons!

26 thoughts on “Texas Instruments Graphing calculators – essential math teaching aid, or a scam?”

  1. When I was going through high school in Alberta (’91 to ’94), I had an amazing math teacher for grades 10 AP and 12 AP (AP = advanced placement). He taught how to do math by hand, and then use the graphing calculator as a tool to verify you have done things correctly. The calculator was some sort of Casio, I don’t recall the model. The teachers view was, the universities will not allow you to bring the calculators to tests, so one needs to learn how to do the math by hand.

    Contrast that to my grade 11 AP math teacher, he taught is class using an overhead projector model of the Casio. The students that did not have that model of graphing calculator struggled keeping up with the lessons. It was a terrible class. We learned how to use a calculator.

    During my Masters, and I am still doing the PhD, I have not used a graphing calculator for years. I have scientific calculator. Anything that requires something more complex, I use a mathematical programming program, such as Matlab.

    1. Think you have got to ask – if parents are forking out money for calculators kids don’t need, that only leaves TI and the school district as potential beneficiaries… (unless you count the textbook writers who lock in to the TI calculators).

  2. My two kids had to have the graphing calculators in Montgomery County, MD too. One of them went belly-up and the other was stolen – and resulting impact (on my kids, that is) was virtually nil. A cheap scientific calculator would have been sufficient, if needed at all. In ancient times (30 years ago or so), algebra was somehow, someway, taught without a graphing calculator.

  3. I was amazed when I stumbled onto the posts about needing to purchase a TI-83 for your childrens 7th and 9th grade math classes – it reminded me of something that happened a number of years ago when I was teaching cadets map & compass.

    One of the classes dealt with calculating the change in magnetic declination (difference between magnetic north and true north) from what is indicated on the map – it varies slightly every year and if you have an older map the difference can be quite significant. Not much to it really, some just multiplication and then division to convert from minutes to degrees and such.

    I started showing them the workings on the board and soon realized that I had a sea of confused faces in front of me. Turns out the last time they say anything resembling multiplication and long division was grade 2 – they were all in grade 10 or 11 at this point.

    My jaw just about hit the floor – EVERYTHING was now done with calculators. I’m not sure whether it was that I was dismayed or furious, but the class quickly turned into a crash course on how to do long division. If you’re in the woods chances are you don’t have a calculator with you so knowing how to handle this with pencil & paper or dirt & stick comes in handy – bad bearings are a good way of making sure you get or stay lost.

    Come test time they were ready, my jobs was done – AND they could do long division.

    The kicker? When they went to do their map & compass exams, what were they given? Calculators. I believe that’s when I developed a slight eye twitch.

    Deviating ever more off topic (but still slightly relevant) – I couldn’t help but think of this post when I saw today’s XKCD comic: http://www.xkcd.com/768/

    T.I. has been laughing all the way to the bank for quite some time I imagine.

      1. No problem, I don’t often comment on the blogs I read – more of a lurker I guess, but I felt compelled to share in this case. This kind of problem seems to be fairly widespread and only getting more pervasive.

        Glad you enjoyed the comic :)

  4. It’s too bad, Andrew, that your kid’s school system has not made good use of these calculators but has required kids to buy them anyway. But don’t extrapolate too much from that bad experience. In fact there has been a lot of really good work, for at least 15 years, on using advanced programming and graphing features of these (and similar) calculators for enriching math education. At least some of this work is based on good studies of how kids learn math and science. TI has sponsored some pretty good stuff. Yes, they push the use of their own calculators in the implementation. Check out http://education.ti.com/sites/US/downloads/pdf/chicago_full_program.pdf for some examples like probability experiments, exploring parametric equations, studying conservation of energy, exploring fractals, a geometric approach to the fundamental theorem of calculus, algebraic proofs of geometric formulas, and more.

    1. Yup. So what company do you work for, Phil? Check out wikipedia.org, mathworld.com, ocw.mit.edu, math.com, calculus.org blah blah blah…

      And don’t get me started on “studies”. They’re usually written for the benefit of the people who funded and produced them.

  5. I’ve twice been forced to buy a graphing calculator. One was a Casio thing, because that’s what the course mandated, the other was a TI, for the same reason. We were actually required to use the graphing functions, and some of the statistical ones, but we never got past learning how to use the calculator, i.e. we never encountered a problem that was actually easier to solve with the advanced features of the calculator. “Advanced”, of course, being a relative term.

    Nor have I used the calculators since. They’re useless in any real-life situation (except they work as basic bubble-gum calculators) and they are of no benefit at all when studying maths at the university level, compared to a cheaper scientific calculator. I did get much joy from a TI-68 for a while, and my current calculator cost me a whopping £8 at Sainsbury’s and is the best I’ve ever owned.

    Graphing calculators really haven’t changed since the 90s, while all other hand-held electronic devices advance at exponential rates. Why? I imagine it’s much the same as university text books. They get revised year after year, adding little to no new information but shuffling the content enough that you will have a hard time following your courses without the most recent editions: keeps students from handing down books, and keeps the cash flowing.

    You wonder why universities put up with this. It distresses the poor students, and the wastefulness alone is offensive. But in a large socially-minded bureaucracy like a university, the only welcome changes to the status quo are the slow ones introduced by carefully scheming capitalists. It’s what you get for trying to centralise, standardise and streamline everything. You open the door for greedy arseholes who will figure out how to work the system.

    And then you’ll pay through the nose for crap you don’t need.

  6. Thanks writing this article. Couple of days ago my 10th grade daughter asked for Graphing TI graphing calculator (apparently teacher recommended, for many kids schools list is gods command).
    I always believed any scientific calculator is good enough for high school (Math Calc A, B tests) you really don’t need to shell out ridiculous $100+ for such a crap.
    Graphing is good, even for 8 or 9th grader to see how that equation looks, and really understand and appreciate it, but you can do it on our PC . I have downloaded free graphing apps. Showed and encouraged my daughters to play with it, long before they went to high school and teacher wants them to buy TI.
    It beats me why one would buy TI or HP graphing calc for over $100, when ……….
    1) They usually wont’ allow you to use on school exam, or AP exam, and as for home work or better understanding you can always use your PC to graph.
    2) Even if you use It couple of times in school, is it worth $100+ ?
    3) I told my daughter, I would rather use IPod Touch with $2, Graphing Apps IPod Touch is $150 ( Apple refurbished ) but does lots of other things than shell out same amount for crappy TI. Even Netbook @ $300 or less sounds better option.
    After hearing her tantrums, I decided to do some research, Is it only me or anybody else thinks same way and stumble upon this article. Great, Thank you Andrew.
    By the way my elder daughter, took Calculus A, and AP exam in high school just 2 yrs ago , I did not buy TI but she got one from her friend. I asked If she used her TI in her SAT or Calc AP, she replied she doesn’t remembers.
    One more thing that troubles me, Basic math, Physics or Chem. has not changed over last 50 or more years, but still you are required to buy new edition textbooks !


  7. These calculators from TI and HP are nothing but rip offs. The electronics inside probably cost $3 to make today, yet they still charge $100+ for them and have horrible displays and speed. Because they use obsolete electronics they also use a lot of power, so you have to spend a lot in batteries. At least Casio is better in the power usage and speed, although their prices are not a lot better either, even though they are almost half of the TI and HP offerings. Their newer Prizm to be launched in 2011 at least addresses the display issue. Since TI is usually pushed by educators, I believe there is some “economics” going on behind the curtains that make them mandatory everywhere.

  8. I’m currently working on my PhD in aerospace engineering, but I went through the IB and AP math program in Montgomery county not too many years ago. Anyways, I barely used my TI-89, and pretty much all of my college courses were either “no calculators allowed” or “scientific calculators only.” For homework and research, we have MATLAB and Mathematica. I was curious so I pulled out my TI89 from a box in my apartment…I still have a few calculations from my BC calc final exam in the history, only 10 lines above the current screen. And that’s 1 BS in Aerospace with a minor in physics, and one MS in Aerospace later….

  9. I’m a 10th grade student (not in Maryland though). In Al 2 w/ trig, i use my ti 89 titanium all the time. A few of my friends in the class also have graphing calculators and we love them. When everyone else is complaining about having 2 hours of homework, we can get it done (and correct) in 30 minutes.

    1. Was refreshing to see a student say they actually not only used it but found it USEFUL. Good for you Richard and good luck with your continued success in school. :)

  10. I teach Geometry and Algebra 2 in New York State. My school does not require families to purchase these tools. Honestly, the TI-84 calculators get little use in my Geometry class. There are, however, legitimate uses for these tools in higher level classes. That being said, I grew up in an era when even scientific calculators were looked at askance by my high school math teachers. Trig tables in the back of the textbook were where we had to look to solve for theta. And that should be fine today, also. Unfortunately, high school students (generally) struggle to factor simple polynomials because they don’t know their times tables. Why? The problem is not the calculators themselves, but rather how early they are introduced. Because students have come to rely on the calculator, their ability to simple multadsubtravision has been stunted. These calculators should only be allowed for enriching very specific topics.

    For Algebra 2 there are features beyond what a scientific calculator offers that are extremely useful. The Stat functions make it very easy to do regressions of all kinds. Lines and curves of best fit are a breeze. The ability to plot equations and data points at the same time allow students to see the connection between the two. Also, doing synthetic division is simplified because the graphing function allows you to find an appropriate “zero” point to begin with. BUT… most of the course work can and should be done without the use of a graphing calculator.

    Like any tool, there are appropriate times to use the graphing calculator. Allowing elementary or middle school students to use a calculator of any sort to do arithmetic is akin to training to run a marathon by riding a Segway. And almost as silly an investment.

  11. I realize this was posted well over a year ago, but I am an engineer – with a love of calculators – and I was intrigued by the post title. I have owned two TI-XX calculators in my lifetime. I believe a TI-83 in high school – which was helpful for checking my homework. I recall learning how to use graphing calculators in other classes (e.g. here’s the equation for a parabola, put the equation in your calculator and see what it looks like – or graph these data points and get the slope), but we used a classroom set of calculators (this was in the mid to late 90s, so this is different from your children). When I went to undergrad, I bought a TI-89 for my engineering courses and gave my TI-83 to my college roommate, a business major. The TI-89 was, once again, helpful for checking work, but in our calculus classes we were not allowed to use calculators on exams at all (kudos to my instructor for requiring I learn how to do derivatives and integrals without a calculator!). We also learned how to use Maple (mathematical software package similar to Matlab).

    Here’s my point: on one hand, I think learning how to use a programmable calculator/graphing calculator in high school was good – because it gently prepared me for using mathematical software packages later. I LOVED my TI-89 in college. I programmed the snake game and I could check my paper/pencil or mental math, too. I don’t recall thinking either calculators was ever a bad investment (but then again, I likely didn’t pay for either – thanks Mom and Dad). I think middle school is a early to make these a *requirement.* I think they can be very beneficial – if they are actually USED. Coming from someone who has now taught engineers – I am amazed at the math some of them cannot do without a calculator!! I have also taught non-engineers, and I find in some students their calculator skills woefully inadequate (mostly stemming from not understanding order of operations). With both engineers and non-engineers alike – there’s a tendency to write down whatever the calculator spits out without taking a second to go “does that answer really make sense??”, but that’s another problem entirely.

  12. If an instructor requires the ti calculator, Texas Instruments will give a few free calculators to the school.

  13. I really appreciate your article.

    I have a 10th grader and an 8th grader. The eighth grader’s school supply list is the one available.

    While I was shopping for the 8th grader’s list, I tried to anticipate my 10th graders list and start buying his. So I mentioned the calculator that my 8th grader needed, the TI-83 to my 10th grader. So my 10th grader suggested that I give his sister his graphing calculator the TI-83.

    So I said have you been using it. He said yes but not much. Now he has had that calculator since 7th grade. I was pleasantly suprised abuot that but quite perplexed that he was still using the same TI-83 and “not that much”.

    So I did some research and came across your article and instead of buying the calculator I ll email the teacher to make sure of the “using it not that much” calculator is really required. Maybe that could save me the cost of thhe 90.00 new calculator or 45.00$ used calculator.

    Thanks for the insight, I was thinking along the same lines too, Also I teach in a school of that is located in very poor area and I wonder how do they do their math with out a calculator, Some of them cant even afford regular school supplies.

  14. For algebra? No, no way. For Calc II? Yes, of course. There are somethings that graphing calculators can help us do to solve problems and help us visualize the math that is actually going on, as in finding zeros and intersections of systems of equations that rotate around around some y = c. Even more remedial chemical calculations dealing with pH: finding the -logarithms and understanding graphical relationships between equivalence points and, volumes of base, and [H+], these little plastic boxes become an indispensible tool. But can you learn anything new by having one in algebra one or two? Even elementary linear algebra? No, you can do it by hand. Technology, for the most part, has not proved itself to be the changing factor in classroom education.

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