Numeracy Skills – Proud to Be Innumerate? II

Technologically advanced society risks losing an appreciation of numeracy skills.

The Whizz curriculum, which is based on the Primary National Strategy for Maths, teaches ratio, percentages, basic statistics, coordinate geometry, relatively tricky mental maths, and long division (amongst other subjects) to its maths age 10 students.

If we could all do long division and understand the difference between mean, median, and mode we would be a damn sight better off than we are now. So I suspect NIACE is pointing at the wrong statistics. In my opinion it’s less about whether we’re better mathematicians than our year 5 students, and more about whether we truly understand, or use, our year 5 numeracy skills.

Poor maths in real life

If we fail to spot the right change in a shop, or work out the best interest rates for our savings, or understand the health statistics associated with lifestyle changes we may end up considerably less healthy and wealthy, but we won’t attribute such mistakes to poor maths. Instead, we put this failure down to others’ lack of scruples.

Government and industry should work harder to convey numeric information better (such as medical test reports and mortgage documents) in an age in which we are bombarded with data. But the very quantity of such data has made us passive, trusting, recipients. Whether or not we have the numeracy skills of an 11-year-old is irrelevant if we don’t know when to use those skills.

To take our accountant’s son, he doesn’t need to know how long division works, only that he can put the numbers into a calculator in a particular order to get the right answer. And since calculators never fail, he’ll be fine. But, as any good software developer knows, GIGO – “Garbage In, Garbage Out”. In other words, even the best calculator in the world can’t give you the right answer if you type the numbers in the wrong order.

And this is why a technologically advanced society risks losing an appreciation of numeracy skills just as it risks losing an appreciation of basic engineering or science. Despite being surrounded by electronic appliances, and the fruits of centuries of scientific development, we really only need to know that such appliances work, and not why, or even how.

Hamlet and your fridge

Sixty-odd years ago, CP Snow decried an equivalent embarrassment gap to the one described by Dame Mary. He compared being asked to name, say, a Shakespeare tragedy and the Laws of Thermodynamics. He was right that this was a massive imbalance of priorities, but wrong to focus on shame, because once you’ve established that the Laws of Thermodynamics explain how the refrigerator works, the conversation generally ends. Which is a pity, but we take the fridge on trust. We don’t do the same for Hamlet.

So, to cut a long blog post short – NIACE is right, and yet they might be fighting the wrong battle. If we bang on too much about whether we have the necessary maths skills we might not stop to wonder whether we’re actually using them.

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