Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Why is numeracy so undervalued in the UK?

Alison Goldworthy on Twitter has raised an interesting issue this morning. Paul Waugh retweeted something from Ed Richmond where he had tweeted:

At daughter's swim lesson. Why do 7 year olds need to learn butterfly? The swim equivalent of algebra; complex, elegant and utterly useless.

Ali responded:

I love algebra, I use it all the time. Why is being numerate useless and literate useful?!

I am fully in agreement with her on this one.

This little vignette from Ed sums up something I have thought for a long time. Literacy is very highly prized in this country. People generally are not happy to be unable to read or write (or be poor at it) and it is considered to be very important to overcome any problems associated with this.

Contrast this with the general attitude to numeracy and mathematical skills. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard people over the years say with a shrug of the shoulders "I'm no good at maths!" with them seeming almost proud of this fact, or at the very least happy to announce this to the world. There are people close to me who I have heard do this on occasion too.

It seems like once someone gets the idea that maths is not for them, or that they are not a "mathematical person" then they effectively write themselves off and our society tacitly (or in some cases blatantly) assents to this.

Now I am fortunate in that I was pretty good at all 3 Rs so I could be accused of being insensitive here but I don't think so. It would be insensitive if I was having a go at people for not being able to improve their skills at something that they were incapable of but the relative success of other countries (especially in Asia for example) when it comes to maths suggests to me that this is a cultural problem rather than an innate one. Countries like Japan encourage all children to push themselves at maths as the skill is very highly regarded in their society (a bit like literacy is for us) and the result is much higher levels of numeracy than we have.

Here is some evidence to back up what I am talking about. There was an "International Numeracy Study" done in 1996 (available within this document). Here is a summary of the findings:

The International context for Basic Skills within the United Kingdom can be demonstrated from findings of the International Numeracy Survey 1996 (Opinion Research Business). This found that comparing the percentage of respondents who managed to give the correct answer for all the tasks, Japan emerged top. 43% of respondents tested in Japan achieved a full set of correct answers. This was followed by France (40% getting them all correct) and the Netherlands (38%). Respondents in the UK performed least well. Only 1 in 5 people tested (20%) managed to accurately complete all twelve given tasks. Australia was second from bottom (at 33%) but Australians still performed significantly better than the UK.

When the results were reviewed for the proportion of respondents getting most answers right (10 -12 correct across the twelve tasks) the UK respondents do not improve their performance vis a vis other countries. Barely half (47%) were able to give the correct answer for 10 or more of the tasks, which compares very unfavourably with the rest of Europe (76% in the Netherlands, 68% in Denmark and 65% in France and Sweden).

At the other end of the scale almost a quarter of the UK respondents (22%) could only answer up to 5 questions out of the 12. This compares with a lower 14% in Australia, 10% in France, 7% in Sweden, 7% in Denmark, 5% in Japan and 4% in the Netherlands.

The following table provides a summary of the survey results.

Scores achieved across 12 numeracy tasks:

So out of 7 developed nations all of whom we will compete and trade with we came bottom at numeracy.

Like I say, for this to change will take a big cultural shift but it could start by people thinking twice before happily announcing to all and sundry that they are rubbish at maths. After all, would they be so keen to announce that they were virtually illiterate?


Unknown said...

I certainly agree that it is very odd how proud people can seem to be of being "no good at maths". It is heart-breaking and a great shame that so many people have this attitude. I thoroughly enjoy mathematics and did so right from when I was a child. It is such a powerful subject in so many ways, and so elegant when used in the right way.

I was a secondary school maths teacher for 5 years after finishing university, and found that although some children found maths hard, it was often a question of showing them the right way to think about a problem to "make it easy", and convince them that they can do it after all. People generally like doing things they feel able to do, so giving confidence is a good start, although there is of course more to it than that.

I think that the lack of rigorous grounding in mathematical skills has played a large part in the decline of standards in this country. You can't hope to have a feel for basic numeracy if you use a calculator for everything, and where parents have lacked a good mathematical education themselves, there is little everyday practice of the skills that a child needs to build on. It will take a long time to reverse the problems that have been created by some recent phases of the British education system!

Ed Richmond said...

Blimey; I'm kind of glad I didn't liken butterfly to Latin now, otherwise I'd have never sparked all this!

Though, to tell the truth, personally, I HAVE found Latin (and here you could easily replace Latin with literacy) a far more useful grounding for other areas of life than anything I ever floundered about at in Mr Krukowski's classes in school. I truly was the person for whom all maths may as well have been written in Greek.

Perhaps though, my original tweet chimes a little with the theme of what you're saying. I was wondering (albeit in a flippant manner) why it's considered a good idea, and even acceptable, for kids to be tutored in a vast array of disciplines to a frankly inadequate level rather than really given a solid and unshakeable grounding in practical and usable skills.

In your case that might mean not just settling being crap at maths. In mine; not drowning.

Any swimming teachers want to shoot me down next?

Brian E. said...

There is probably no reason for having a deep understanding of maths, unless you are going in for particular professions. I am, however, appalled at the number of people who can't do simple mental arithmetic. As for basic algebra or simple geometry, well just forget it!
Only the oldies in supermarkets seem to notice that sometimes it is cheaper to buy two smaller packs of a product rather that one larger one, or the "special offer" of six cakes in a pack is exactly the same price as selecting them singly!
Mental arithmetic was required in the days before electronic calculators when we had to use the slide rule (if any readers can remember what that was) which gave you an answer without the decimal place, forcing you to do a rough calculation in your head. A very useful ability, when everyone assumes that what the calculator says is correct and ignores the possibility of their having pushed a wrong button at some stage.
Now, well into my 70's, I pride myself that I can usually do the first two problems in the Daily Telegraph's "Mind Gym" entirely in my head, and the third one only making occasional notes. I regret to say that my elder daughter, in spite of her MSc couldn't even do the first, proving at least there's something that her father can do that she can't, in spite of her claims that I can never remember anything!

Matthew Huntbach said...

Why is algebra being confused with numeracy? They are two separate things. It might help if people could get as far as realising mathematics isn't just about numbers.

The little bit of basic working out that is school algebra "utterly useless"? How on earth do people who think like that cope with modern life?

Rubbishy and illogical and innumerate arguments are commonplace in political life here. There are things printed in quality newspapers which would cause laughter were a similar level of illiteracy shown in the words and grammar used. How many journalists have any maths or science background? It ought to be a compulsory requirement, given the number of stories which are based in economics and science research and the like.

Mark Thompson said...

Matthew - if you are referring to me when asking why algebra is being confused with numeracy then It isn't. Ed's specific tweet that was disparaging about algebra just reminded me that this general subject around numeracy is something I have been meaning to blog about for a while.