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Being Numerate

May 13, 2011

Numeracy can be defined as the combination of mathematical knowledge, problem solving, and communication skills required by all persons to function successfully within our technological world. Numeracy is more than knowing about numbers and number operations.

(British Columbia Association of Mathematics Teachers 1998)

I remember one of my first experiences in British Columbia was to attend a professional development day in one of the lower mainland districts. The room was packed. I was somewhat nervous as I was at the session to talk about the mathematics curriculum and I was younger back then.

The educator who introduced me ended the introduction with ” …like me I am sure that there are many people in the room who can not do math…” I can not remember everything else that was said but this part of the statement has stuck with me. I have tried to picture anyone standing in front of a room of educators stating “… like me I am sure that there are many people in the room who can not read …” or “like me I am sure that there are many people in the room who can not ___(fill in the blank)___”

I would therefore propose that the attitude towards mathematics needs to change. There seems to be some level of status granted if you can factor a polynomial. While this is an important aspect of mathematics for people continuing in mathematics related fields it may not be important for all people. I can honestly say that I have never factored a polynomial outside of the classroom. However, I use mathematics everyday in almost everything I do.

This makes me wonder … what if we change the conversation from “doing mathematics” to being numerate (also known as Mathematically literate) and the different ways that numeracy manifests  itself in our lives. Just as being literate is an essential part of our daily life so is numeracy. Can we function without some level of each?

As an educator, I hope to work towards developing literacy and numeracy in everything I do. The goals of numeracy and literacy are ones that cross any borders which may be defined by subjects. Literacy and numeracy are essential to accessing the content of the subject in meaningful ways.  They are essential for the 21st Century Learner.

In the words of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development:

Mathematical literacy is an individual’s capacity to identify and understand the role that mathematics plays in the world, to make well-founded judgements and to use and engage with mathematics in ways that meet the needs of that individual’s life as a constructive, concerned and reflective citizen.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

As I continue in my career as an educator I will continue to encourage others to become more numerate. I will encourage a badge of honour based on being numerate and not on the belief that ” I could not do mathematics either.”

On a side note … as I did a spell check on this Blog numeracy was highlighted as a word that was spelled wrong.  When we are all talking about numeracy I hope this will change 🙂

Comments encouraged!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 13, 2011 8:12 pm

    Richard, it has always struck me as ironic we would never let students say, ” I suck at reading”. We would intevene and work with that student. As an adult we would never admit ti being illiterate, but we have no problem telling people we suck at Math. I agree, we need to shift the mindset – being numerate is as important as being literate. As teachers we need to start instructing Math the way we do reading and writing. Less focus in textbooksmand programs and thoughtful meaningful teachings of learning outcomes.

  2. May 14, 2011 4:35 am

    We teach the vocabulary of maths (now to be known as numeracy) along with the concepts of numeracy. This helps our students to communicate effectively the thoughts behind the process of them solving correctly or incorrectly a problem. It is often about how they work mathematically (a strand we assess).
    I think that attitude of not being able to do maths is because it is often seen as having an absolute in the form of a correct answer. Open ended activities without a set answer but a range of possible answers to help in this situation? Change the emphasis from the answer to the process, dialogue and reflection. (I try to do this in my classroom).
    Competitive classrooms probably dont help the attitude as well. Feeling uncomfortable as you are being ‘left behind’ by more able students would certainly make you feel like you couldn’t do it. Ability stream maths classes? We have 100 kids and four teachers in Year 6, this makes it easy. Already in the past four months I have seen students who were reluctant to contribute to discussions in numeracy classes become more confident when working with kids at their own level.
    Project based maths? Gives a real world feel to the numeracy that kids have been learning.

    “…like me, I am sure there are people in the room that cannot reverse park”

  3. May 15, 2011 1:51 pm

    Thanks for the comments Darcy and Alfie.

    I showed my post and the replies to my wife who said … “this is not new.” I could not agree with her more … negative attitudes towards mathematics and numeracy as a whole are not new. What I think is new is our ability to communicate ways to create the mindshift that Darcy mentions above. Perhaps talking about being numerate and not only about mathematics is part of this.

    Using authentic data, problems students care about and open ended questions as you note Alfie is a great way to help students see that mathematics is a not about absolutes and that there is interpretation needed when solving problems. Indeed you can not always make judgements on the math alone. To me this is is part of being numerate.

    Great comments.

  4. July 13, 2011 3:02 am

    I’m meeting with a local literacy org this morning for some discussion on possibilities of creating a numeracy program. This article is really helpful in getting my mind in the right place.

    I’ll let you know how it goes.

    (and I thought about this tactic – when someone says, “I can’t do math,” I’m going to respond with, “How much do you weigh?” When they look at me shocked, I will point out that they just instantly did a comparison with the amount they weigh and the amount they think they should weigh and have determined that this difference was way too much to admit to out loud. So not only CAN they do math, but they do it very quickly!)

    • July 13, 2011 9:37 am

      Would love to hear how the meeting goes.

      My response when people say they can not do math is usually “surprised you made it here on time. Do you need help getting home?” 🙂


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