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!

Andrew Maynard