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.
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?