Technologically advanced society risks losing an appreciation of numeracy skills.
This is the claim from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE), which recently argued for a “cultural shift in the nation’s attitude to maths and a change in its teaching”, as the BBC put it.
Poor numeracy vs. poor literacy
In a report which looks at the limited impact of the money spent on the Skills for Life programme, author Dame Mary Marsh pointed out that poor numeracy is somehow far less shameful than poor literacy – a sentiment echoed by NIACE Director of Operations Carol Taylor.
The parents who come to Maths-Whizz to give their children a boost in numeracy are the opposite of the bad maths ‘badge of honour’ wearers. They are the parents who recognise the importance of maths not just for passing exams but for the life that follows the school years.
Even so, we still sometimes see an attitude which may be behind the problem outlined by NIACE. I once spoke to a parent who told me she was an accountant, and used maths every day. “Bravo!”, I thought. The mother was certainly keen on her son improving his maths, but she was angered that he was required to do so much pencil and paper-style working out (roughly 10% of the Whizz curriculum at his age). This was because, to use her words, “he can just use a calculator”.
At this point I confess I wanted to throw the telephone across the room and go for a long walk. But hers is an all-too-common sentiment that maybe is at the heart of our ‘problem’: namely, that whilst maths is A Good Thing To Know, we don’t really need to know it.
This attitude may be less a function of maths per se, and more a function of an advancing technological society. Maths skills are no less in demand than they were, and sectors like software, finance, research and business require good maths; but almost all of us can rub along with the very basics.
In fact, the NIACE report points out that only one in 10 adults with numeracy skills lower than an 11-year-old had taken a numeracy course. I don’t find this remotely surprising, because the maths required of a 10-year-old is often adequate for adult life.