I realised something recently. I cannot use a scientific calculator with ease.
It isn’t that I cannot read the labels on the calculator. Nor is it because I cannot understand how a calculator works. It is simply because I cannot string a complex formula into the calculator in the exact sequence that I want. Consequently the answer shown by the calculator differs from the answer I was trying to get.
To put things in context: the last time I used a scientific calculator extensively was when I was studying, in my teens. I still used the scientific calculator in my university days, but I did not rely extensively on the complex functions in it. I relied on working through answers mostly by hand.
Throughout my career, I do not have the need to use a scientific calculator. A simple calculator would suffice. It was also during my career that I started using Excel extensively to perform simulations and database functions. Putting formulae into the spreadsheets reduced the need for calculations extensively.
It was only when my daughter started learning Mathematics at the upper secondary level that I realised how much more advanced scientific calculators are today. It is now possible to form an entire formula into the calculator to get an answer.
But that is also when I realise how I need to relearn the skill of using a calculator all over again.
I learnt some things from this episode.
1. Education has evolved over the years. When I studied in secondary school many years ago, we were allowed the use of scientific calculators in our subjects. However the ability of the calculators then is nowhere near those available today.
Primary school students today have the option of using calculators when working out maths questions. As a tool, the calculator is really helpful for those who need support to work on their understanding. If I had a calculator during those primary years, I may benefit much more.
I was comfortable with the skills I acquired back then in using scientific calculators. I remember how I would be very confident in using the various functions to get the answers I want. If you ask me to use specific calculator models, I will find answers much faster too. But that then brings me to my second point.
2. Knowing how to do things the old way may not translate to new ways of doing. Compare a scientific calculator with a basic one. Besides the obvious differences in terms of functions and stored formula, scientific calculators help you to get answers using stored formulae in the calculator.
Yet knowing how to use one scientific calculator does not mean you will know how to use other scientific calculator models. New functions are added on, the way one keys inputs can differ.
It’s the same with other tools, such as software. How many new features in Microsoft Word 365 would you be familiar with, and use? Maybe the Microsoft 365 suite is too new. How about Microsoft Office 2019? How many new features within did you discover and use actively?
The thing is, we are all creatures of habits. Once we get used to a certain routine, or developed some habits, our brains are hardwired to perform them, regardless of context (well, mostly). To synthesize something into our routine or habit requires a lot of effort and deliberate practice. It isn’t difficult. It just requires some intentionality in the action. That brings me to another point.
3. Computational thinking is important, more so than merely following sequences taught (i.e. rote learning). By the term ‘computational thinking’ I am referring to a set of problem solving methods that allows one to think and express the problem and solutions in such a way that you can train a computer to execute. As with my earlier point, if you tend to follow a routine or a set of established practices, eventually you may find yourself moving off track.
Hence this is where computational thinking comes in. It allows one to approach an issue and consider how to frame the issue to find the solutions to it. Computational thinking requires one to be analytical about the issue without having to box yourself within constraints and assumptions.
Take for instance my use of the scientific calculator. I had entered a string of formula assuming it’s the right way of expressing it to the calculator. Unfortunately the answer I got was not the right one. I could have chosen to recognise my answer as valid, and the answer key as wrong. However I chose to question if my formula inputted into the calculator is right. Consequently I was able to reach the right answer by breaking up my formula and reframing the way I entered into the calculator. Which brings me to my last point.
4. It never hurts to relearn how to use a tool you used to use, in order to sharpen your skills. We all know the adage of learning, unlearning and relearning. Another way of framing is the idea of unfreezing, changing and refreezing (Kurt Lewin’s change management model). It could be that I had not mastered the use of a scientific calculator all along. So what is wrong with trying to learn how to use all over again?
Being open-minded about one’s attitude towards what you know and what you don’t know is something that is not easy to hold. This may come easily to some, but a big struggle for others. It could be related to personality, character, one’s background or experiences. Regardless, having a learning disposition is half the battle won in this day and age. Moving along with that learning disposition is key, and essential.
On hindsight, it may not be that I should relearn the way to use a calculator. It could be that I ought to devise a better way of finding the answer to the math question, and helping my daughter learn how to work out the answer on her own. Or it could be that I should unlearn my method of thinking and finding a better way of approaching the use of the calculator.
I am not a stickler with details. Sometimes I gloss over details if I know they have been attended to. But sometimes, regardless of the level of attention given to these details, I would pore over them and use all means and ways to find loopholes in them. I realise that such an attitude comes in handy in certain situations and times.
How is this linked to a calculator? Well, put it simply, if something matters to you, you will put more energy and attention to it, and vice versa. If having the right skillset matters to you, you will find ways and means to make sure you stay on top of things.
If you are in a similar situation as me, what would you do? How would you look at the idea of unfreezing, changing and refreezing in light of IR4.0 today? What would you do differently from today?