Debunking The
Four Calculator Myths
Debbie Dickinson, Executive Director


October 11, 2010 - Recently the lifting industry was hit with a question, calculator or no calculator?  OSHA gave the green light to calculators in the new regulations, effective November 9, 2010.  However, operators are still taking certification tests without the use of a calculator. This logic was challenged by industry leaders, company safety directors and crane operators who understand that calculators are routinely used on the job.  


Crane Institute Certification (CIC) researched the issue, extensively. CIC validated, in job analysis, the fact that crane operators routinely use calculators. The job of an accredited certification provider is to verify knowledge and skill essential to a particular job.  Therefore, CIC agrees that calculators are acceptable for certification testing. CIC will comply, if a state has a restriction against the use of calculators.  However, from a matter of perspective, policy and recognition of best practices for safety, CIC supports and encourages organizations to consider the evidence that supports the use of calculators in testing and allow their use. 


To shed some light on the debate, taking a look at other testing and certification organizations that struggled with the same problem is helpful.  Educational institutions grappled with the question for years.  Heidi Pomerantz and Bert Waits, educational researchers from Rice University and Ohio State University, explained some of the misconceptions surrounding the use of calculators.  Following is a summary of the top four myths about the use of calculators, presented in their publication, The Role of Calculators in Math Education.


Myth #1 Calculators are a Crutch:
Many people believe that if you rely on a calculator, you'll never really learn how to solve a problem.  The truth is that calculators don't think.  They only do the task of computation.  The person using the calculator must know and understand arithmetic to input data.  In fact, the calculator actually furthers understanding because people can use their time and effort for figuring out more complex questions and reach more precise answers. The question is not whether or not using a calculator proves arithmetic skills.  As Pomerantz & Waits stated, the calculator performs according to the data entered by the user.  The


The questions for the crane and rigging industry are:

1.       Are arithmetic skills required to use a calculator?  The answer is unarguably, yes.

2.      Should crane operators be allowed to use a calculator on the job?  Yes.

3.      If calculators are used on the job, should operators be able to use calculators in certification testing? Read the research that follows before answering.


What do you think?  A crane works manager, at a nuclear facility, polled on this question offered this perspective.  "Operators here are required to use a calculator.  They must demonstrate proficiency in determining capacity, deductions and other lift calculations. Aren't you glad?" That same concern should apply to all lift calculations.


Myth #2 "If I didn't need a calculator, then neither does anyone else!": 
For years people worked without calculators.  The logic then states that people should still be able to work without calculators. If we hold to that logic, we need to outlaw computers in cranes, load moment indicators, anti-two block devices and all modern safety devices, because there was a time when they were not used. 


Calculators replace the slide rule, abacus and paper and pencil as a means of calculating.  In addition, the crane industry and machines it uses have changed.  Crane operators are responsible for working in crowded cities, nuclear plants, and other potentially dangerous situations. For this same reason, the industry has constantly reviewed and updated safety standards.  The use of calculators for testing and certification is simply keeping in step with the growing use of technology in our industry and world.


Requiring manual calculations is not a traditional or ethical value.  It's simply a difference in how things were done once upon time, and now.  The general population, which includes those of us in the crane industry, makes more mistakes calculating in our heads or on paper.  Calculators are not fool-proof but they are more reliable. Certification testing must, by the standards of accreditation, be based on actual and realistic requirements of the job.  Does actual and realistic for crane operators include the use of calculators?

Myth #3 Calculators Prevent People from Really Learning the Basic Skills Needed:   
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) recommends the use of calculators for all students, kindergarten through college.  NCTM goes on to explain that more complex and real world problems can be asked because students can calculate in depth when using calculators. Penn State University published the following statement:

"The Department of Mathematics offers two versions of the mathematics test-one requiring the use of a calculator and one that does not. You can choose either version of the test. For the calculator version, you may use any four-function, scientific, or graphing calculator. You may not use hand-held minicomputers (such as Blackberry devices), pocket organizer, laptop computer, calculators with paper tape or printers, or any calculator with a standard (QWERTY) keyboard." Calculators will not be provided to students who want to take the calculator version.

Penn State's description of calculators that are approved for acceptance in the mathematics program, surfaces another important point.  Calculators, used in certification testing, must be secure and approved.  Calculators that store or record information, may not be used.  A simple check, no more difficult than making sure paper is blank and that a pencil is just a pencil, verifies the calculator's acceptability. 


Myth #4 We're Helpless if the Calculator Stops Working: 
First of all, with cheap, solar powered, and readily available calculators, this is not a realistic problem.  Working equipment is a normal expectation on any job site. However, if by some catastrophe, all calculators, smart-phones, computers, and anything that does calculations these days were rendered useless, then we would still be alright. Calculators don't think for us.  Paper and pencil, should not be prohibited.  It could still be used.  Doing so will just take longer and for safest operations, calculations should be checked and rechecked for accuracy. 


Limiting certification tests to paper and pencil calculations may, in fact, create the opposite of the desired result of testing - dummying down. We use cranes and supporting equipment that is more and more reliant on technology every year.  As the industry moves in that direction, our operators must increase their comfort level and skill with technology.  The use of calculators is one step in that process. The purpose of certification testing is to verify real world, necessary knowledge and skills. In the crane and rigging industry, that includes the use of calculators much more often than paper and pencil. 


Calculators are being used every day on the job site, and they should be a part of our testing and certification as well.  They do not "dumb down" those who use them.  They help us to complete greater tasks more efficiently. 
November 2010


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