Using calculators can improve pupils’ calculating and problem-solving skills, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has found.
To achieve maximum benefit, calculators should be used in a ‘thoughtful and considered way’ taking age into account. The EEF recommends primary pupils should use calculators ‘regularly’ but not daily. Secondary school pupils should have ‘more frequent access’ in order to decide if and when to use them.
Pupils need to be taught calculator use, the EEF says. For example, they could be given strategies to estimate answers before using a calculator to obtain an accurate answer.
The EEF report coincides with its guidance aimed at improving maths teaching in Key Stages 2 and 3.
Pupils should be taught to ‘use a range of mental and other methods,’ the report advises. They should ‘be able to recall number facts efficiently and quickly’. While emphasising the importance of fluent recall, teachers ‘should also help pupils understand how different calculations work and when they are useful.’
Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation, said:
“This research is valuable because it synthesises a huge range of international evidence on what works and what doesn’t when it comes to teaching maths. For instance, it tells us that collaborative learning has a positive effect on attainment….’
The EEF advice is at odds with the opinions of schools minister Nick Gibb. He claimed the improved SAT results in 2015 were because calculators had been forbidden and because the ‘valuable academies programme’ had been extended to primary schools.
Key stage 2 tests have changed since then. In 2017, the proportion of 11-year-olds reaching the expected standard in the maths test was 77%.
But did the 2017 results confirm Gibbs’ assertion that allowing primary schools to become academies brings higher results?
Not according to government data. There was little difference between LA maintained schools (still the majority of primary schools) where 76% of pupils reached the expected standard in maths and all academies/free schools where 75% did so.
But there were differences within the academies/free school group. 78% of pupils in converter academies, mainly good or better schools on conversion, reached the expected maths standard, while 71% of free school* pupils and 67% of pupils in sponsored academies, mainly previously poor-performing schools, did so.
The Nuffield Foundation’s endorsement of collaborative learning is not likely to find favour with Gibb. In 2015, he lumped ‘collaboration’ with ‘current orthodoxies’ rife in British schools.
It’s unlikely Gibb will take notice of the EEF review. Neither is he likely to heed the EEF’s earlier conclusion that mastery learning (another of Gibbs’s favourite strategies) ‘appears to be particularly effective when pupils work in groups…’ Gibb dislikes group work.
Gibb claims his ideas are ‘evidence-based’ but, as we’ve said before, evidence-based teaching is based only on evidence accepted by Nick Gibb. Other evidence, such as the EEF conclusions cited above, can be ignored if it doesn’t fit his preconceptions.
*Data comparing free school results with those of other types of school should be treated with caution - there were too few free schools entering pupils for KS2 SATs.