While the terms math and numeracy are often used interchangeably, they refer to quite different things, and the distinction plays an important – if often implicit – role in defining the scope of the conversations we have about numeracy skills. In brief, while math is conceptual and abstract, numeracy is the practical application of mathematical knowledge to solve a problem.
The importance of this distinction became evident at a recent panel discussion organized by the Economic Club of Canada on Ontario’s declining numeracy skills. The session was motivated by the fall release of a research report, written by Graham Orpwood of York University and Emily Sandford Brown of Sheridan College, which examines the effects of a ‘numeracy gap’ on Ontario’s economic competitiveness.
The report argues that Ontario’s students do not have the level of numeracy skill that is required in the labour market and calls for a provincial roundtable to find solutions. In many ways, the report follows up on work done by the College Math Project and the College Student Achievement Project, which found that roughly one-third of students entering Ontario’s colleges lack the level of math skills that is required to succeed in their program of study. In its own 2014 report on numeracy as an essential skill, HEQCO emphasized the need to make a careful – if inevitably fuzzy – distinction between numeracy and math.
But by question period at the Economic Club session, the distinction appeared to wander. Why are high school students doing so poorly in math? Are teachers afraid of math or do math teachers need more training? Maybe the style or content of the curriculum is to blame? Weren’t we all better off before inquiry-based learning?
These questions had very little to do with the numeracy skills that are developed and applied over a lifetime and are equally essential for all in work and life. No, these questions were all about math — a very narrow segment of math, specifically high school math. Math is an easy target – we all hear about the EQAO results and we’ve all taken some kind of math class at some point – but something deeper was at work here. When we don’t differentiate carefully between numeracy and math, discussions tend to centre on high school math. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this, but it excludes a much broader discussion.
As Orpwood and Brown’s report makes a clear, numeracy is an essential skill for life and work, whose importance goes well beyond the successful completion of a curriculum. While some students will require an advanced education in math to enter their chosen professions – in the STEM fields, for example – all students require strong numeracy skills regardless of their academic interests or chosen professions. The bar for numeracy skills is set by the ever-changing demands of everyday life, be they investing wisely and becoming financially literate, or interpreting data to pick your hockey pool.
Importantly, the knowledge standard for numeracy is very reasonable. We’re not talking calculus, linear algebra or advanced statistics here. If we look at the questions used in the OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) instrument designed to assess adult life skills, we instead find topics like fractions or simple probabilities that are covered early in the math curriculum.
For that same reason, the process of becoming numerate is less about developing further knowledge and more about constantly reinforcing basic concepts. HEQCO’s numeracy report emphasized the need to spread math throughout postsecondary studies, partly so that students can’t avoid it but also so that they repeatedly encounter numeracy in organic environments appropriate to their academic interests. Math shouldn’t only belong in math class.
The distinction between math and numeracy isn’t always clear. But however fuzzy, the distinction plays an important role in extending the conversation beyond the high school classroom and helping us focus on the practical application of those skills in life and work.
Nicholas Dion is HEQCO’s senior coordinator, research and programs.