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The trick to using a calculator

A while back I read an article that was proposing that today’s children don’t need to learn how to count and do calculations by hand.  The reasoning they gave was that they are growing up with calculators and all the other technological devices at their disposal.  The article also went on to say that they didn’t need to learn how to write with a pen or pencil and paper.  Of course, having learned these things when I was young, I hadn’t given it much thought since then.  I wasn’t totally convinced when I read the article but I didn’t really have a compelling argument against it.  After all, I thought, well perhaps the author makes a good point.  How would I know really…only time would tell…

Well, that was my thinking when I read the article and then I forgot about it…until yesterday.  I popped into a store to pick up a couple of envelopes.  Imagine, I was going to send something via regular mail and do you know, I was going to use a pen to address the envelope simply because for me it’s faster than making up a label on my computer, printing it out and affixing it to the envelope.  Then again, I know how to use a pen!  When I got to the cash with my two envelopes, the cashier was kind enough to let me know that these normally come in packages of three and wouldn’t I prefer to buy a package.  I didn’t really because I only needed two but when I saw that she didn’t know how to punch only two into the cash, I obliged her and decided to get three.  I just figured by the dumbfounded look on her face that it would be faster for me if I went with the package of three.  Then she could just scan the package since she clearly didn’t know what to do with only two envelopes.  She sent a colleague off to go get a pack of three for me.  I hadn’t seen the packages and sure enough, when her colleague returned, she had three individual envelopes rather than a sealed pack of three.  There were no packages.  They asked if I minded that they weren’t in a package and told me that since they were loose, that I would get 10% off.  Great, I thought, and went for it.  At this point my quick trip into the store was already longer than anticipated but now I was getting a deal.  Fabulous!  So ring those up please ladies so I can get on with my day!!

math-imageThe cashier, who was no older than 20 years old, pulled out a calculator.  I thought that perhaps the cash register couldn’t calculate that 10% for her but later realized that she didn’t know what to punch in on the cash to get the 10%.  I had already done the calculation in my head.  And now, there she stood with a rather confused look on her face as she stared at the calculator.  Then she calls back her colleague for help with the calculation.  At this point I thought I’d be helpful and let her know that 10% of $3.67 comes to 37 cents.  She looks at me and then looks at her colleague who has now arrived to help her.  Both of them are now looking at the calculator.  I suppose they needed to double check my calculation.  So I patiently wait.  After all, I don’t want to get them fired for punching in a possibly erroneous calculation.  A few minutes go by and I’m fascinated.  Since there are now two young girls standing there cracking their noodles open on this problem, it is obvious to a third colleague that something is up.  She comes by the cash and asks what’s going on.  They appraise her of the situation so she rushes off and comes back with a calculator.  Clearly she couldn’t solve the problem in her head or on paper either.  There are now three girls, all under the age of 25, and two calculators but no buttons are being pushed on those devices.  Just three confounded looks and some serious wheels spinning in those brains.  I’m sure if I looked closely enough, I’d have seen smoke coming out their ears.  That’s how hard they were working on this problem!  At this point I have to admit that I’m more than fascinated and it’s been a full ten minutes that I’m standing there.  I’ve been patient but I decide to attempt once again to help them.  So I mention that if they simply divide the price by 10, they will get the discount they are looking for.  All three look up at me and then one says to me, “Yes but we have to take 10% off!”.  The other then tells her to just divide the number by 10 like I suggested.  Finally the third girl divides $3.67 by 10 and guess what?  She didn’t know what to do with the answer because it had three digits in it.  Holy shit!!  And that’s when that article popped back into my head and I came to a definite conclusion that there was a flaw in the author’s premise.  It’s all well and good, I decided, that the kids today have access to technology that will do the calculations for them, but guess what?  You still have to know how to actually DO the calculation in order to punch it into your device properly.  That’s the trick they didn’t seem to know.  First they seemed to have no clue how to calculate a percentage, then we had an issue of rounding off a number, and then can you believe that they took out a pen, yes a pen, and a piece of paper to then subtract 37 from $3.67!!

After more than ten minutes of having three employees on the task, the cashier apprehensively punched $3.30 into the cash because she finally accepted the answer I was giving her.  She still wasn’t sure this was right but I suspect it kicked in for her that I’d been there plenty long enough and that perhaps I did know how to calculate without a device.  Now, let’s assume these three girls are earning minimum wage which is just over $10/hr.  My three envelopes cost me $3.30.  It took those three fully ten minutes to punch in that one item which means it cost the store $5.00 in wages between the three of them to conduct that sale.  Nevermind the other costs associated with putting those envelopes on the shelf, ordering them and so on.  Just at the cash, that one transaction put the store in the hole.  And that was enough to convince me that perhaps we do need to continue to teach math and writing the “old school” way.  Because the trick to using a calculator still remains that you need to know what to punch in and how the calculation is done.  Those brilliant devices will only do what you tell them to do.  You still need to have some vague idea of the formula, no?  In any case, as nice and kind and willing as those three girls were, I’m not so sure I would hire them even for minimum wage if my goal was to at least break even or even, god forbid, turn a profit.  Technology is truly a fabulous thing and I do quite love its power, but it still remains that it’s only as powerful as what we tell it to do and at the end of the day, someone needs to program that stuff otherwise it does nothing.  If you don’t know how to tell it what you want, it won’t just up and do it for you…yet.  We still have to nurse the infamous auto correct.  Perhaps one day we will no longer need to know the “how” but I’m not going to count on those kids figuring out how to program the devices to get us to that day.  Hopefully they are still teaching some basic math in the schools for now…  In the meanwhile, I had some fun coming to all kinds of conclusions and fortunately they were all very nice people.  I wonder if I’d been more patient if I’d have gotten an even better bargoon on my purchase…  I’ll never know!




  1. What is so very interesting as well as frightening is that when printing was invented and the protestants of the time decided to teach how to read to shepherds and generally poor people the people in power got so scared that they endeavored to kill the protestants at least in France, later on the slave owners banned any kind of teaching to their slaves. Then during the industrial revolution reading and counting abilities were encouraged for more intelligent workers were needed. Now the owners,the dealers do not need anymore such large masses of people to be competent, quite the contrary. So ignorance for the masses is most welcome.

    • Hmmm, that is interesting indeed Claude! Thank you for sharing. Your comments just made me think of two common phrases…”Information is power”, and “Ignorance is bliss”. It now makes me wonder which of the two would be better given that they somehow seem mutually exclusive and yet potentially equally beneficial…

  2. This is why I sent my kids to Kumon. It’s the Japanese way of learning math. When I saw my daughter in grade one using her fingers to count because her teacher told her to use them and a ruler as well. I could not figure using a ruler for addition and subtraction. Kumon has been around for many years and they teach the way we were taught in school, rote memory and 10 minutes of math everyday. My children complained of going and screamed on why do they have to do math everyday. Today they are fast at adding up in their heads no use of fingers or toes. Plus they are a year a head in math from their classmates. It was so worth the investments and I truly believe old school is the best way. They are teaching kids to think logical and practical in school. These three girls are the example of the system failing them. Too sad…

    • That’s a fun story Jenn! Thanks for sharing. It makes me smile to hear that your kids are now whipping through mathematical calculations. I have to admit, I do have a bias towards having a solid foundation in math just because I love it so. :) I agree, somewhere the system failed these girls. It’s really fun that you found an alternative learning method for your kids and that it worked so well for them. Yahoooo!!! It makes me smile. :)

  3. I was never a whiz at math, but certainly knew the basics. (and did survive 2 grade 13 math classes, and 1st year algebra at Queen’s – that one’s another story). How the school system currently thinks they are preparing kids for even basic participation in society is beyond me! It’s like going to the cash and something costs $5.57 – so you give them $6.07 and they look at you like you’re crazy. I’ve had them give me back the $0.07 – then I suggested they keep and and punch it into their handy-dandy cash register and they would see they would owe me $0.50. With total skepticism they’ve tried it. Then always want to know how I knew that?!? “I went to school in the good old days. When we actually learned something.”

    • Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that experience of handing the cashier the extra few cents. :) That’s another good one! Thanks for that one Jenn! It’s quite fascinating really to see the confusion and I still don’t get what’s happening that we’re running into that all too often. I’m happy it’s not me though. I think I’d find that uncomfortable. :)


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