Mathematical Literacy: A necessary skill for the 21st century

Maths chocolate

Photo by Flick user s-guilana | CC BY 2.0

My Grade 9 math teacher was a jolly British man, and probably taught me one of the most useful things I ever learnt in high school: how to do basic math in my head (or, since I was in the British educational system, it was Grammar School). Every so often we’d go into our math class and find little bits of paper on every desk. This was a harbinger of doom – it meant we were having a 20 question surprise quiz. And not just any quiz, a mental arithmetic quiz. He would read a question out loud twice, and then we’d have to do the math. He’d give us some leeway (you didn’t have to be exact), but man did I ever hate those quizzes. At the time, they seemed impractical and a colossal waste of time. In retrospect, they were incredibly useful.

Now, being on the other side of the divide, I see something that concerns me. I regularly TA undergraduate and graduate students in statistics, and I notice that many of them, while they have all the skills to do math, are absolutely terrified of it. And as soon as you fear a subject, or don’t want to learn it, you won’t. Your mind will shut down and every instinct you have will prevent you from engaging in the material. As a result, I spend the first hour of any class I’m teaching talking to the students and determining what it is they don’t understand to tailor my sessions accordingly. But the comments generally involve variations on:

“I just don’t get math.”
“I’ve never been any good at math.”
“I don’t like it.”

Of these, the first two concern me. The third I can’t help – I don’t need my students to love math, but I do want them to understand enough to pass the course and feel comfortable interpreting statistical analyses. There’s a culture among schoolkids to dislike math and the perception that it’s largely useless. While in chemistry you can see stuff blow up, and in biology you can dissect animals, math is a largely abstract concept. That perception then manifests as a lack of interest, which results in poorer performance, and that puts people off math. This is further compounded by a phenomena known as “Math Anxiety” or “Math Phobia.”  Ashcraft and Kirk discuss this extensively in their 2001 paper, and suggest that much of the anxiety is a result of the fear of getting the wrong answer in their tests. I’m not going to delve into it now as the whole area of math performance, both in terms of math anxiety and performance anxiety as well as cultural and gender differences in math warrant a dedicated post. For now, let’s just talk about what constitutes “mathematical literacy.”

The OECD released a report in 2000, where they defined literacy in three domains, and the way they defined numerical literacy was:

Quantitative literacy – the knowledge and skills required to apply arithmetic operations, either alone or sequentially, to numbers embedded in printed materials, such as balancing a chequebook, figuring out a tip, completing an order form or determining the amount of interest on a loan from an advertisement.

The OECD also conducts the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) which evaluated the performance of 15-year olds in math, science and reading. It defines mathematical literacy as:

Mathematical literacy is an individual’s capacity to identify and understand the role that mathematics plays in the world, to make well-founded judgements and to use and engage with mathematics in ways that meet the needs of that individual’s life as a constructive, concerned and reflective citizen

As you can see, the idea of numerical or mathematical literacy, as defined above, isn’t advanced math like calculus or algebraic manipulations. We’re talking about being to understand the order of operations and activities requiring that level of mathematical understanding. Given that the world is moving towards a knowledge based economy, the lack of mathematical literacy is a big concern. Now more than ever the ability to critically evaluate information presented to us to draw our own conclusions, rather than have someone tell us what they mean, is of the utmost importance.

In Canada, this has particular relevance as we (like most of the Western world) are in the midst of an aging population. This comes with its own set of challenges, but one is that as patients age, they suffer from illnesses, and if they are unable to to interpret medical information or if doctors are unable to explain to patients in a way they’ll understand, then patients are unable to make informed decisions about their health.


Photo by Flickr user Minibe09 | CC BY-NC 2.0

I’m not implying that everyone needs to be able to advanced math and statistics. Given the advances in technology (see abacus app above), you can now use an app to calculate how to split the bill or calculate a tip (iLounge reviews 30 (!!) apps here). You don’t need to be able to do hierarchical ordinal regression using bootstrapping, or factor analyses, or structural equation modelling. But given how much data we are presented with on a regular basis, be that in the form of interest rates on a bank loan, discount on sale items or even polling numbers for political parties (the latter discussed by Swans on Tea), a basic level of numerical literacy is not only important, it’s necessary.

Ashcraft, Mark H.; Kirk, Elizabeth P., “The Relationships Among Working Memory, Math Anxiety, and Performance”, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 2001 pp. 224-237
Ciampa PJ, Osborn CY, Peterson NB, Rothman RL., “Patient numeracy, perceptions of provider communication, and colorectal cancer screening utilization.” J Health Commun. 2010;15 Suppl 3:157-68. Available at:
OECD. “Assessing Scientific, Reading and Mathematical Literacy: A Framework for PISA 2006″ 2006. Available online at:
OECD. “Literacy in the Information Age: Final report of the International Adult Literacy Survey” 2000. Available online at:

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17 Responses to Mathematical Literacy: A necessary skill for the 21st century

  1. Greta Jones says:

    This is still such an important topic! I wrote a little about my experience with math and how I ended up improving on my blog. Math phobia is (unfortunately) alive and well. What practical advice would you give for people who are trying to become better mathematical thinkers? I’ve written a little bit about it on my blog, but I’m interested to hear what you would recommend.

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  9. Tim Poston says:

    I also grew up in England, born in 1945, and I don’t see any change from then: when I told people I was a mathematics undergraduate, they looked at me like a strange creature with two heads, both unimaginably smart. They hated mathematics, except for the permutations and combinations in the football pool betting system, which had never been soured by school coverage.
    I have lived and worked in many places since then, and found much the same when I tell people I am a mathematician — except in India, where I often get a big smile and “Maths was my favourite subject!”.

    I would distinguish mathematical reasoning skill from arithmetic, not to down grade either but to recognise their separate importance, and different educational requirements. I suspect that the best tool for arithmetic teaching is not the electronic calculator but the abacus, which is actually faster for +, – and × (though not for sines and cosines). It makes numbers into intensely real, tactile, manipulable objects: many East Asians can use an imagined one, at amazing speed. It is also the way that the Romans computed (a “calculus” is a “little stone”, moved in the abacus): notation like MMXIII for the current year was just a way to write the results, like turning computer-binary into human-decimal.

  10. Bob Mrotek says:

    Getting the right answer is obviously very important but learning how to state the problem succinctly in the correct mathematical format is even more important. After that you can use a calculator or not as you wish. This post is good food for thought.

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  12. SC says:

    Great post and agree fully with the author.
    Growing up in a developing country, we were always expected to do arithmetic calculations without a calculator, a skill which has stayed with me all these years.
    Maybe banning the use of all-pervasive calculator suntil Grade 6 or 7 would make kids learn how to ‘math in the head’,

  13. Krissie says:

    Thanks for this informative post about the importance of math. When you don’t have basic math skills, you struggle a lot more in life – it’s harder to have/follow or even understand the basics of a budget. Not having this basic life skill can definitely set you back…

    • Thanks for your comment Krissie! I definitely agree with you there – managing a budget, understanding how interest rates work, all that relies on a strong math background.

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