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Numeracy: It’s All in the Numbers

Have You Ever?

Imagine you are living in Laos where very few people speak English. You go to the market expecting to be able to barter and communicate because numbers and math are universal concepts. However, you soon realize that nobody understands you because the words for numbers are different in Lao. You decide to just point to the items you want and to hold out your money for the people to show how much you owe. You end up leaving the market with a few items, unsure if you over or underpaid for them. 

Explanation

In this example, your language barrier illustrates what it would be like to struggle with numeracy. 

While basic numeracy skills, or the ability to count and do arithmetic, are common for children to learn throughout elementary school, students are not always offered courses or opportunities that will help with complex numerical situations they come across in their life. The misinterpretation of numerical data or information is common because correctly interpreting it may require background knowledge of statistics or advanced math skills, along with practical application.

The interpretation of financial, medical, or political information often requires high-level math skills. If someone does not have these skills, they will not be able to function fully within society or advocate for themselves. Therefore, numeracy skills are equally as important as literacy skills.

Numeracy

Numeracy is the ability to understand and work with numbers in everyday situations. As these practices are social, they are embedded in daily life. Therefore, to be able to numerate is the ability to use numbers or calculations in a social manner. While mathematics and numeracy are overlapping principles, they are not interchangeable. Mathematics is absolute and structured, whereas numeracy integrates the context of real life situations, using math to solve these problems. It is also the ability to recognize when numbers are being misused to manipulate data to tell a false narrative or make an inaccurate conclusion.

How It Works

Numeracy is socially constructed. Thus, understanding numerical data requires a nuanced understanding of the social forces behind them since they are created by people who gather and interpret them to make a conclusion. 

People often think that when numbers are involved, information must be completely factual. When consulting a health professional, research article, or financial support, information may be provided numerically because it is assumed that depicting information with statistics or graphics leads to more informed decisions. However, numeracy is required to not only understand the information, but to determine whether the numbers make sense. If a person is unable to dissect complex mathematical information, they will not know which decision is best for them. This results in decisions being made without a full understanding of the consequences.

In 2013, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy determined that only 13% of the United States population is numerate. In the study, people were considered numerate by their ability to locate quantitative information and solve complex multi-step problems. While this statistic is shocking, formal education plays a huge role in why so many individuals in the U.S. are considered quantitatively illiterate. Schools typically focus on the application of numeracy only within math classes, but numeracy is more than mathematical skills. There is a misguided belief that algebra and calculus classes teach the quantitative skills necessary to be an educated citizen. However, being an A+  student in calculus does not mean that an individual is fully aware of the common abuses of data usage, especially in mainstream media. Therefore, there is a gap in formal education that prevents individuals from accessing numeracy. 

So What?

While math classes are extremely important, numeracy is an interdisciplinary practice, meaning it is a skill that should be applied across multiple school subjects. Students need to be taught how to process and apply information in order to use it to create and seize opportunities. They also need to be able to determine when data is being manipulated to spread false information. Therefore, the educational approach to numeracy needs to be reconsidered so that individuals can apply numeracy in a multitude of real life circumstances and to have a nuanced understanding of data usage. Practice and application are crucial, along with understanding the purpose behind learning a new skill or knowledge. Bridging the gap across subjects and between the “real world” and education, especially within mathematics classes, will help increase access to numeracy skills.

Additionally, information must be made more accessible and comprehensible. In countries such as the US, a majority of citizens do not have the mathematical skills to be considered “numerate.”  In any given country, it is unlikely that all citizens will become “numerate” by the state's standards, which are often geared towards highly educated people. Therefore, nations should concentrate on making public information more comprehensible. For this to happen, numerical data must be simplified, with the reliability and validity of research explained in a way that everyone can understand. Statisticians and other data analysts should also be held accountable for the information they release into the media and other outlets, especially if they are spreading misinformation through data. 

All individuals have the right to understand the reliability and consequences of any medical procedures, financial decisions, or the countless other important life situations that require advanced mathematical practices. Currently, this information is only accessible to a select number of people. With change in education, there can be more opportunity and understanding for all. 

Think Further

  1. How does the presentation of information numerically make information more or less understandable and accessible?
  2. What are the pros and cons of standard math instruction?
  3. How does standardizing education across the globe lead to the teaching of irrelevant topics?

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  1. Barwell, R. (2004). What Is Numeracy? For the Learning of Mathematics, 24(1), 20-22. Retrieved June 22, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/40248441
  2. Epstein, Mark J. Yuthas, Kristi. (2012). Redefining Education in the Developing World. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Retrieved from https://ssir.org/articles/entry/redefining_education_in_the_developing_world#
  3. Lipkus, I., & Peters, E. (2009). Understanding the Role of Numeracy in Health: Proposed Theoretical Framework and Practical Insights. Health Education & Behavior, 36(6), 1065-1081. Retrieved July 20, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/45056147
  4. Steen, L. A. (2001). Mathematics and numeracy: Two literacies, one language. The mathematics educator, 6(1), 10-16.