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What is Numeracy ?

Approaches to numeracy

The policy and curriculum literature embodies a range of different perceptions of what numeracy is and what it takes to produce numerate behaviour. Generally speaking, however, attempts to describe ‘numeracy’ emphasise either:

the mathematical concepts, procedures and skills students need to know; or

the kinds of practical tasks/social goals which students should be able to perform or meet; or

the ‘generic’ and strategic processes students should be able to use for applying mathematics.

If we begin with the proposition (first proposed by Willis, 1992 and since adopted by others eg. Curriculum Corporation 1998) that '
being numerate, at the very least, is about having the competence and disposition to use mathematics to meet the general demands of life at home, in paid work, and for participation in community and civic life’ then numeracy is not about the acquisition of even a large number of decontextualised mathematical facts and procedures, nor about learning mathematics for its own sake. Rather, numeracy is about ‘practical knowledge’ – the knowledge that has its origins and/or importance in the person’s own physical or social world rather than in the conceptual field of mathematics itself:

This is not to deny the importance of the conceptual field of mathematics, but rather to suggest that it is not the same as numeracy.

This has led to the view then that
‘numeracy is the intelligent, practical use of mathematics in context’. (Willis, 2000)

Our view

Based on this definition it seems reasonable to claim that numeracy is about using mathematics in real contexts where the purpose of the activity is something other than (just) learning some school mathematics. For example, life at home may involve people in shopping, budgeting, cooking, dressmaking, designing a home addition, or buying an insurance policy. There are limitless examples arising from work (paid and unpaid) while participation in community and civic life might involve a person in helping run a club, making a submission for funding for a local project, or engaging in a sport like yachting or orienteering. All these tasks could involve a person, to a greater or lesser extent, in using mathematics (eg Hogan and Kemp, 1999). So numeracy is situation specific.

Numeracy then is more than knowing and doing some school mathematics. Very often the mathematics used in a context is shaped by the context. It looks and feels different to the mathematics of the mathematics classroom. There is evidence to suggest that the mathematics learned in isolation from the contexts of its use often remains in isolation and that people make very little use of the routines they learned in the mathematics classroom (eg Chapman, 1988 and Boaler, 1993). There is also evidence to suggest that skills need to be developed in the context in which they will be used (eg Resnick 1989). So students need to experience mathematics beyond the mathematics classroom if their mathematics is to contribute to their numeracy.

Numeracy development in school and other learning situations

We take the view that the ‘real’ contexts for students’ use of mathematics are the other school subjects they do. It is across the curriculum that schools provide the situations that make numerate demands on students. It is in these settings where students could be required to use mathematics in order to complete a task, make a model, understand a new concept or solve a problem. This is where they can experience the use of mathematics beyond the mathematics classroom. Indeed significant numeracy demands are made on student in all subjects across the curriculum. Hence we need to develop insights into what is happening for students when confronted with these learning situations, and to develop strategies for teachers to use to help students develop their numeracy across the curriculum.

While this site emphasises numeracy across the curriculum we wish to acknowledge that this doesn’t replace learning school mathematics. It is vital for students to continue to develop sound understandings of their mathematics curriculum. However we believe that others are doing this work and that numeracy as we have described requires more focus.

The above is written by John Hogan, drawn from the work of Professor Sue Willis and supported by a number of projects the author has worked in over the past decade.


Copyright copyright.gif John Hogan 2002.
This document may be copied if it is not included in documents sold at a profit.
Hogan, J (2002) see heading of the page. (On-line).
Available at http://www.redgumconsulting.com.au/num_whatis.html

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