EdMedia Commons Archive

Can a Calculator Resolve the Math Wars?

Pedagogical disputes over mathematics may not be as heated as they were in the 1990s, but certain hotly-debated questions remain. Prominent among them: Should students be taught math through standard algorithms or calculator-based, inquiry-enhanced learning?

Some researchers say the traditional curriculum has dulled the child’s ability to think broadly and did very little to boost core basic knowledge of math. Many STEM professors fear competency is limited without old fashioned drilling.

But what if classroom tools encouraged students to know their multiplication tables while still permitting some degree of variability in how they plow through a math problem? Over at Freakonomics, a calculator called the Quick, Approximate, Mental Arithmetic (QAMA) is held up as a bridge between the two sides of the Math Wars debate:

I typed “25 x 37″ and pressed “=”. A short underline cursor flashed away on the bottom left of the screen, without offering an answer. Instead, it demanded an estimate. Like a skilled tutor, it answered my question with its own.

When I entered 100, it asked again. For how could two numbers, each around 30, multiply only to 100? When I tried 400 and even 800, I still got no answer. Only when I tried 900 did the calculator answer my original question and tell me the exact answer (925). By experimenting, I found that, in order to get the exact answer, the estimate must be at least as close as 814–an error of 12 percent.


If the QAMA calculator is the only calculator a student uses—and who needs more, for Wernher von Braun designed moon rockets with only a slide rule—she cannot help but think. With each use, rather than becoming dumber to the point of needing a calculator to compute 6.5 x 10, she learns mathematics ever more deeply.

Is this calculator the armistice these pedagogical conflicts need? 

This post originally appeared on EWA’s now-defunct online community, EdMedia Commons. Old content from EMC will appear in the Ed Beat archives.