Downloading Cognition to Digital Devices

The digital devices we carry in our pockets and that we keep on our desks and in students’ backpacks hold amazing capacity to access and manage and create information. We can download many repetitive cognitive tasks to these devices and they complete in fractions of seconds what took me many minutes to do as a student.

The best example of this, of course, is calculators. The handheld devices that I used as a mathematics student in the 1970’s and 1980’s have been replaced with devices that have very complex functions and can manipulate and display data in seconds compared to the minutes or hours needed to perform similar tasks with pencil and paper methods. When I became a science teacher, then math teacher, then an educational technologist, I advocated for students to learn how to use these devices. The common objection heard by mathematics teachers who integrate these devices into their classrooms is, “but what will they do if they don’t have a calculator?”

The answer I give to this objection is, “they will go find one.” (I also draw the similarities to attaching two pieces of wood with a nail. If you don’t have a hammer, your go find one.) This is often misperceived as a flippant response, but the reality is that performing large and complex calculations is completed much more quickly and with far greater accuracy when downloaded to a digital device than when performed with algorithms completed by a person with pencil and paper. This is true, even if you have to wait until you have access to a calculator.