It has long been a concern that we as a nation have learnt somehow to despise mathematics, and even worse, pride ourselves on not being able to do numbers. A report from the British Academy goes down the usual route of saying that as a country we are not numerate enough, and cannot see the value of data presented to us. The view in the report is that unless we gain expertise in both essential numeracy and in fundamental statistical interpretation we will not be able to get the best out of the “big data” revolution that apparently is on its way, if it hasn’t arrived yet. And being the British Academy, it relates everything back to the national economic interest, which may not be the point. But what is the point is that our society, as the report also points out, is in need of a much deeper and more thorough grounding in how we learn, use and apply quantitative skills for our own societal health.
The report defines quantitative skills as:
The ability to reason using numbers. Understanding and interpreting numbers and data requires a diverse range of skills that can be applied within specific disciplinary, applied or research contexts. The skills themselves can range from basic arithmetic to handling advanced statistical analysis. Among other things, the possession of these skills allows for: confidence in the manipulation of numbers; an understanding of the possibilities and limits of measurement; and understanding the role of evidence in testing and modifying our understanding of social processes.
They are right. Our society is awash with statistical information and we need to have a clear understanding of not just basic numeracy (mastery and depth are important) but the use to which numbers are put. And as we are citizens that live in a sort-of democracy (let’s not fool ourselves, by the way) where a country’s government can rejig the basis of calculation of statistics so it looks like we are richer than we are and less indebted to the huge numbers of children we are leaving in poverty – then mathematics suddenly becomes a democratic tool, or a weapon in the war of how best to interpret the data we have on behalf of the citizen. This is a real challenge to us in schools. We are so used to seeing maths as somehow neutral in the democratic debate that we forget that it has a purpose, a divine intent as a means of thought. And one of these is that we learn to look upon and use the data and mathematical information that comes our way and cut it down to the size it needs to have in our society.
A good example of that is the NASUWT’s most recent report on the number of teachers who have suffered online abuse. There are some truly horrifying statistics amongst this report, and they are absolutely right to target it as a campaign. However, the union has (or had in 2012) 294,000 members (it is probably higher now). The sample from the online abuse survey garnered “nearly 1500” respondents, a tad over 0.5% of the membership, or one in 200 teachers. Of those one in 200, 60% (0.3% of the membership) reported some form of online abuse. This is not to say that the union is wrong to target this, but given the fact that people who have suffered from something are probably more likely to fill in a survey about the thing they have experienced, we have most likely a weighted sample to start with. So whilst the data is sound (as far as we can tell), the sampling may be far from representative and the survey may have over-egged the proportion of teachers who have suffered it. The losers in this sort of analysis are the union (who could be humbler and more directed with their data) and the teachers, whom the union may have exposed to a fear that is perhaps not as widely backed up by the numbers as it could have been.
So yes, let’s get each other and our children more numerate and let us speak of the discipline of mathematics with honour and respect. We need as teachers and parents to be skilled with numbers so we can interpret, for instance, the material that churns forth monthly from the Office of National Statistics and be able to challenge governments and large organizations when they are being silly (most days you can collect evidence of this) or unjust (takes more care, but a mathematically-trained mind will spot this before a social scientist, any day).
To get truly away from our deferential inheritance, we need good skills, not just polemic. The web has made it possible for us to access good data – many of us haven’t a clue how to use that data to our democratic advantage. Let’s change that, argues the report. And I agree fully.