To calculate or not to calculate -- and when -- was the question that provoked a small group of math teachers to picket at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics annual meeting yesterday.

While 6,000 math teachers milled around the Sheraton Washington and Shoreham hotels, toting bags emblazoned with publishers' logos and attending seminars such as "Heuristic Strategies in Writing Recursive Logo Procedures" and "Motivation is not a Four-Letter Word," the picketers circled outside to protest the use of calculators in elementary classrooms.

John Saxon, a math book publisher and retired Oklahoma math teacher, and about 20 others carried signs reading "The Button's Nothin' Til the Brain's Trained" and "Beware: Premature Calculator Usage May Be Harmful to Your Child's Education."

They were protesting a National Council of Teachers of Mathematics policy recommending "the integration of the calculator into the school mathematics program at all grade levels in classwork, homework and evaluation." The policy urges that "at each grade level every student should be taught how and when to use the calculator."

Saxon and the other picketers said elementary school use of calculators, which one teacher dubbed "security boxes," would leave students with no reason to learn computational skills.

"I know how my thought process worked" as a child, Saxon said. "If I could use a short cut, I would save my homework and go home and do it on the calculator. There was no sense doing it laboriously . . . . We've got to make the use of a calculator in elementary school a no-no."

John A. Dossey, president-elect of the 40,000-member council, said the intention was not to advocate calculator use as a substitute for thinking. "We're talking about using the hand calculator after the child knows math facts. Children in a modern society have to learn to use modern tools," he said.

Saxon, outfitted in a navy blazer and straw boater, ignored the quizzical looks from tourists on their way to the zoo and the occasional raised-eyebrow grimaces of math teachers who did not participate in the protest.

"No calculators in elementary schools," he hollered to the driver of a passing D.C. Express taxi. "Yeah, yeah," the driver yelled back. Occasionally the teachers broke into a chant: "Cal-cu-la-tors later, we shall not be mov-ed."

Penny Brindley, a teacher at Woodbridge High School in Prince William County, was marching with the protesters because, she said, "I've never met a kid who didn't know how to use a calculator -- that's not something we have to teach."

Brindley allows her high school students to use calculators but said she sometimes teases them about how much they rely on the devices.

The council's policy on calculators is not binding, but its recommendations are considered influential on publishers of math textbooks and on teachers around the country. At best, some protesters said, their efforts might prompt elementary teachers to think twice before using calculators in the classroom.

"I feel the most favorable outcome would be that the teachers would be encouraged to stand by their good sense and ignore such recommendations," said Stephen Hake, a teacher from El Monte, Calif. "We want those teachers to exercise the pocket veto." That's pocket, as in calculator, the teachers noted. As in keeping them there.