Spring 2018

Numeracy: A Hot Topic Hiding in Plain Sight!

Numeracy is “the mirror image of literacy” (Withnall, 1994, p. 11). It does not mirror the funding of literacy, but it certainly needs as much attention. The hot topic around numeracy is the way numeracy is being addressed. It generally does not receive head on attention, and that is because of various competing interests around numeracy. The intention here is to clarify why this hot topic is simmering on the back burner, why principals should pay attention to it, and to clarify that care is needed in deciding how to pay attention to it.

In recent years there have been a multitude of “literacies” emerging from a wide variety of subject areas. These are primarily because the theory of multi-literacies (New London Group, 1996) generalizes traditional notions of literacies to facilitate addressing a multi-modal world. That has led to the moniker “literacy” being used to imply foundational skills across modalities. While this has been useful to many schools because there has been funding earmarked for literacy, it misplaces the foundational aspects of the other subject areas. As a focal example, mathematics has foundational skills that are rightfully called numeracy. While these skills overlap with literacy, they are sufficiently distinct to warrant differentiation early in elementary school. Numeracy, like literacy, then needs addressing across subject areas because it is foundational.

Numeracy has been caught in a challenging position in terms of funding. For many years literacy received funding while numeracy did not. It is argued that literacy is foundational because difficulties with the communicative components of literacy hinder learning other non-literacy skills. This argument was made more compelling through the notion of multi-literacies, which is a theory that literacy transcends a variety of media used in daily life. The implication for school systems has been to have students work with different literacies and to support it across subject areas.

The notion that there are different literacies, however, has led to a plethora of terms conjoined to literacy. We hear of “physical literacy” and “financial literacy” among others. In general terms these are based on the notion that there are foundational aspects of a variety of subjects that can be described as being important in the same cross-curricular way that literacy is. Alternatively, in an environment where multi-literacy theory is applied, these may be taken as engaging different media where being literate refers to a basic level of competence in that medium. In this sense, having a basic level of daily fitness is a form of communication with one’s body and that entails a literacy of knowing how to maintain a healthy body. Likewise, financial literacy can be taken as the ability to communicate using money in a manner that is personally viable.

The challenge for numeracy is that it gets squeezed at both ends of the education system by literacy. In the primary years numeracy requires a level of communication for the deciphering of numbers and associated number skills. In these early years communication is doubtlessly important and considered a precursor to effective engagement in numeracy. A similar situation arises in adult education beyond high school. Adults who are attempting to achieve basic skills find support within community support programs where numeracy and basic mathematics are subsumed as components of literacy (Willms & Watson, 2008; Athanasou, 2012).

The Ontario Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat defines numeracy as being “about doing the math – about recognizing and using mathematics – in a variety of contexts that range from the everyday to the unusual; it’s about being able to use mathematics as a tool to explore problems and situations.” (Ontario, 2012) In essence the secretariat has captured the definition of numeracy, but there are distinct interpretations of this definition that are contentious. Does this definition subsume numeracy as a component of literacy? There is little reason to think that it should and evidence that numeracy and literacy separate (Hogan, 2002). In particular, literacy and numeracy arguably go hand in hand in Primary but separate in the Junior, Intermediate, and Senior divisions. In these later divisions, the vast majority of students have communicative skills that facilitate learning numeracy as a distinct topic.

Some people believe numeracy is being addressed — and here again it is squeezed by differing interpretations of the definition. On one hand numeracy is a foundational knowledge of mathematical skills that allow one to be functional in society (Brinkworth, 2016). In this respect many policies assume that numeracy is being accounted for directly through the mathematics curriculum. However, if the relationship between literacy and multi-literacies is examined then numeracy has a corresponding “multi-numeracies” that is supposed to transcend various subject areas and modalities. This interpretation is found within the field of numeracy and it is argued that it should facilitate foundational skills across circumstances (Brooks and Lui, 2010). This leads to the notion that numeracy (and I will simply call it numeracy so that it is not obfuscated) is a foundational body of mathematical thinking that transcends a variety of subject areas (Swain et al., 2008). In essence, literacy claims to be the responsibility of all teachers and not just English teachers (Carter, Klenowski, & Chalmers, 2015). In the same way numeracy mirrors that and is the responsibility of all teachers.

The problems interpreting the definition are important because numeracy has also been interpreted as a component of mathematics reflected by the curriculum. This interpretation implies that it is being measured by EQAO testing. However, if the interdisciplinary interpretation is used then one needs to consider the possibility that numeracy may include pie charts in social science, comparison of dates in history, measuring changes of heart rate in physical education, counting change in French class, and geometry of forms in art classes. There is a substantial difference.

An additional complicating factor has arisen with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). The National Science Foundation in the U.S. has provided significant funding for STEM (Bequette and Bequette, 2012). This has resulted in a wave of enthusiasm and developed new instructional options that have had influence in Ontario. There is little doubt that such efforts are invigorating, generating excitement and creating new possibilities. However, it also serves to conflate interdisciplinary instruction with the definition of numeracy.

The challenge is that STEM and its related STEAM (STEM with Art) and STEMB (STEM with Business) do provide varied circumstances that facilitate using mathematical skills in a more varied manner. That does support numeracy and it may generate student achievement benefits because it boosts numeracy. That should be a good thing but, if you lack funding or need your funding for other priorities, then a more important question is whether there may be more efficient and effective ways to develop numeracy. There is little theoretical understanding about the connection between numeracy and vocational contexts (Straesser, 2015) and STEM is not the only possibility. In fact, the theoretical aspects of interdisciplinary education are in need of work. The framework commonly being used for interdisciplinary STEM programs originated in 1949 (Sibbald, in press) and was developed to promote communication between university departments. There are reasons to have concerns about it being applied in K–12.

The present situation has numeracy continuing to draw limited attention because of discrepant views of its connection to practical and vocational circumstances. It is recognized as an important foundational component within our society. However, research has shown that, like literacy, numeracy is contextually dependent and interdisciplinary. That does not mean that STEM approaches are a necessary option. Alternatives do exist and arguably allow foundational aspects of all subjects to be addressed. For example, explicitly facilitating all teachers to make connections to foundational skills, whether numeracy or otherwise, is an approach that principals can use to support the future needs of students.

AUTHOR BIO:
Tim Sibbald, PhD, OCT, is an associate professor in the Schulich School of Education at Nipissing University. His research focuses on mathematics education and the movement of teachers within school boards. He is also the editor of the Ontario Association for Mathematics Education Gazette.
References
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Brinkworth, P. (2016). Numeracy: What, why, how? Australian Mathematics Teacher, 72(3), 24–27.
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Willms, J.D., & Watson, B. (2008). Literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills of Canadian youth. Report to Human Resources and Social Development Canada, SP-845-05-08E. Available at http://dsp-psd.pwgsc.gc.ca/collection_2008/hrsdc-rhdsc/HS28-145-2008E.pdf
Withnall, A. (1994) Towards a definition of numeracy. Proceedings of the 1st Adults Learning Mathematics conference, Birmingham, England. Retrieved from www.alm-online.net/images/ALM/conferences/ALM01/proceedings/ALM01-proceedings-p11-17.pdf