Preparing students for the transition to GCSE
The start of GCSEs present some challenges for both students and teachers when it comes to maths and the use of calculators. After the summer holidays, many students forget lessons from the previous year - including how to use their calculator. Taking the time at this stage to build a solid foundation with the calculator helps set up students for later success at A Level.
Setting the standard in the classroom
One of the first things to consider is whether you'll use a scientific calculator or a graphic calculator - and are you going to opt for a basic model or a more advanced device. Getting this right at the start is important because you'll want to establish routines with students and have them use the same calculators throughout their GCSE studies. Trying to start with one calculator and switching to a different device can be highly disruptive to students because they need to be confident taking what they’ve learned in the classroom, into exams. If they’re becoming proficient with one device and they’re suddenly asked to start learning another, it can be overwhelming.
So, for GCSE, choose a type of calculator and stick with it as this will most benefit your students’ learning. Once you’ve achieved basic calculator fluency and students are becoming more confident, you can start to get into more advanced functionality and encourage students to move away from seeing calculators as just calculators and more ‘exploring maths devices’.
Planning calculators into lesson plans
Once you’ve decided on the type of calculator you’ll introduce to GCSE students, consider how the calculators will fit into lessons. Again, this comes down to building a routine with students. For example, do calculators come out immediately at the start of every class? Or do they stay in the box and only come out when the students need them? It might seem a small detail, but remember you’re building routines and making students comfortable with the calculator, so it can be useful for them to have the device out during classes.
While it’s not essential at GCSE, it’s worth considering introducing graphic calculators early. Not just because they're approved for exam use (so are scientific calculators), but because the functionality of graphic calculators sets a better platform for students to interpret and think about maths problems rather than focus on using functions to find answers. For example, you can encourage students to examine the first quartile or interquartile ranges, find mean values, and get all the information they need from the calculator, while interpreting the data they're gathering. Once students have learned the basic calculator functions, they should use them whenever appropriate - it's important students aren't falling back on mental arithmetic and are using calculators.
Finally, consider whether you’ll regulate the brand of calculator used by your students.
Some of this could be dictated by your department policy. For instance, will calculators be provided by the school and loaned to students. Or will students have to buy their own, which runs the risk of having a range of brands and calculator models. We’d always recommend mandating a particular model calculator so each student has the same device - and there’s a good reason for mandating a single type of calculator. While it's always better for students to have devices in hand when learning functionality, teaching each student how to use separate devices is not practical.
And, to support teaching with the device in the classroom, using an emulator means you can display the calculator at the front of the classroom, allowing teachers to show the whole class how certain functions work at the same time. It also ensures every student gets the most out of the calculator and does not miss out on some functionality by trying to learn everything themselves.
Tackling teacher confidence
It’s not just students who can find it difficult to transition to GCSEs. It can often be challenging for teachers, particularly when it comes to teaching how to use a graphic or scientific calculator. We’ve heard stories of teachers worried about looking silly in front of their class if they make a mistake or take too long to provide an answer. In reality, teachers needn’t worry. The fact is young people are far more intuitive with technology than adults and they’ll always figure out the tech faster than a teacher.
There will be some basic functionality students will need to be taught (especially when they’ve never used a scientific or graphing calculator before). But for the most part, by throwing up maths problems and pushing students to find solutions, students will learn how to use the device independently. From a teaching perspective, the role isn’t necessarily to focus on teaching the tech, for the most part students are intuitive enough to work this out once they know the basics. For teachers, it’s more focussing on the fundamentals of the device, and then ensure they provide maths problems for students to work out.
Essentially, teachers should focus on teaching the subject matter; the students will pick up the technology when they know the basics. This is a critical mindset change that needs to happen. When it comes to getting started with the basics of calculators at GCSE, we have many resources available to support teachers to get to grips with the topic. And, if you’d like to see an example in action, Hamstead Hall Academy in Birmingham is a great example of how introducing more advanced graphic calculators early in the curriculum improved maths performance.
By introducing the Casio fx-CG50 to students more at GCSE and then advancing it into A Level, the academy saw vast improvements in overall performance in the subject.
Improving learning at the start to improve outcomes at the end
There’s no denying that introducing students to technology like graphic calculators early in their return to school can greatly improve results later on. As students and teachers return to school, it’s important to start putting plans in place not only to introduce the right equipment and ensure students have the confidence and skills to use them. Did you know that Casio provides free skills training sessions to help teachers build confidence using graphic calculators in the classroom?
Sign up for your free session here