The Importance of Numerical Literacy

By Mr. David Tuten, Upper School Mathematics Teacher

A few years ago I attended a conference sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. One of the popular topics was Numerical Literacy, or Numeracy, as it is more commonly referred to by mathematics educators. We discussed the importance of ensuring that students, and therefore future adults, possess this vaguely defined ability. I use the word vaguely, because in order to help individuals develop Numeracy it needs a definition, and the definition is not easily obtained.

A practical definition that I liked from the numerous ones presented by a researcher, D. Cohen, in a 2000 publication on Numeracy development stated:

“To be numerate means to be competent, confident, and comfortable with one’s judgments on whether to use mathematics in a particular situation and if so, what mathematics to use, how to do it, what degree of accuracy is appropriate, and what the answer means in relation to the context.”

This is an appealingly practical definition, and one that is somewhat easily measurable within educational research. However, it does not fully capture the importance of the more cultural and philosophical benefits of mathematics.

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A broader definition was put forth by researchers Maguire and O’Donoghue in 2002.  Their definition/model is that Numeracy is a continuum from the Formative, through the Mathematical, and culminating in the Integrative.  The Formative is the area of basic mathematics skills, one of computation and manipulative abilities. Numeracy then progresses to the Mathematical, where mathematics is used in the context of everyday life. It is at this point people develop an appreciation and understanding of information presented in mathematical terms, such as graphs, charts, tables, or percentages. Good conceptualization of these topics can help with many areas encountered in the typical adult life. The continuum then evolves to the Integrative, where mathematics is seen as integrated with the cultural, social, personal, and emotional aspects of life. Many professions that use mathematics extensively fall into this area. Additionally, it is this level that many recreational or self-improvement areas of life fall, such as games, puzzles, sports, etc. Finally, there is recognition and appreciation of the benefits mathematics to the overall human experience, such as philosophy and cognition.

Mathematics is an analogy at its most fundamental and philosophical levels. It is the model by which our conscious brain is best explained. Therefore, Numerical Literacy, or better yet, the practicing and understanding of this amazing branch of human thought makes us better, clearer thinkers. When a student asks that infamous question, “When will I ever need this?”, I answer them honestly. They may not need what we are doing specifically since one never knows what the future holds, however learning the discipline and structure of mathematics makes us better citizens and humans in general.

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