Why Is Nationwide Funding A Campaign Against The Teaching Of Basic Numeracy?August 15, 2012
I’ve heard it observed that any group with the word “truth” in the title is rarely interested in the truth. It’s not too hard to find examples, say, “9/11 Truth Movement” or “Holocaust Truth”. A similar phenomena occurs in education where organisations are often named after the very things they oppose in practice. So for instance, the “United Kingdom Literacy Association” campaigns against the most effective way of teaching reading. The “Campaign For Real Education” wants most kids to be in secondary moderns getting a second class education. The “National Association for the Teaching of English” opposes the explicit teaching of grammar. Even then it probably hasn’t got as bad as America where groups dedicated to worsening conditions for teachers have names like “StudentsFirst” or “The National Council on Teaching Quality”.
That said, even I was shocked when yesterday I learned of a relatively new organisation in the maths world, National Numeracy. The organisation responded yesterday to the plans for a new national curriculum which emphasises basic numeracy, by complaining about “early instrumental methods and rote processes”. In the past they have also attacked an emphasis on “procedural tools like times table [sic]” Their website complains about “Boring ‘classroom maths’” which “for too many.. means merely ‘doing sums’ in a classroom” and indicates their approval for questioning “why 80% of ‘classroom maths’ concentrates on computation – which is the one area that those using maths in the real world ‘outsource’ to computers”.
But what shocked me wasn’t the fact that anybody could look at the innumerate children schools turn out every year and think there was too much emphasis on calculation, rote or procedure. Don’t get me wrong, at a time when two thirds of the maths GCSE exam is done with a calculator and the average child can’t tell you 7 times 8 without counting through their tables, I do think this is a ludicrous opinion, but it’s common enough among progressive types who think maths is about sitting around in groups and talking about problem-solving. I am fully aware of the people who the American maths professor, W. Stephen Wilson described in the following way:
There will always be people who think that calculators work just fine and there is no need to teach much arithmetic, thus making career decisions for 4th graders that the students should make for themselves in college. Downplaying the development of pencil and paper number sense might work for future shoppers, but doesn’t work for students headed for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields.
There will always be the anti-memorization crowd who think that learning the multiplication facts to the point of instant recall is bad for a student, perhaps believing that it means students can no longer understand them. Of course this permanently slows students down, plus it requires students to think about 3rd-grade mathematics when they are trying to solve a college-level problem.
There will always be the standard algorithm deniers, the first line of defense for those who are anti-standard algorithms being just deny they exist. Some seem to believe it is easier to teach “high-level critical thinking” than it is to teach the standard algorithms with understanding. The standard algorithms for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing whole numbers are the only rich, powerful, beautiful theorems you can teach elementary school kids, and to deny kids these theorems is to leave kids unprepared. Avoiding hard mathematics with young students does not prepare them for hard mathematics when they are older.
There will always be people who believe that you do not understand mathematics if you cannot write a coherent essay about how you solved a problem, thus driving future STEM students away from mathematics at an early age. A fairness doctrine would require English language arts (ELA) students to write essays about the standard algorithms, thus also driving students away from ELA at an early age. The ability to communicate is NOT essential to understanding mathematics.
There will always be people who think that you must be able to solve problems in multiple ways. This is probably similar to thinking that it is important to teach creativity in mathematics in elementary school, as if such a thing were possible. Forget creativity; the truly rare student is the one who can solve straightforward problems in a straightforward way.
There will always be people who think that statistics and probability are more important than arithmetic and algebra, despite the fact that you can’t do statistics and probability without arithmetic and algebra and that you will never see a question about statistics or probability on a college placement exam, thus making statistics and probability irrelevant for college preparation.
There will always be people who think that teaching kids to “think like a mathematician,” whether they have met a mathematician or not, can be done independently of content. At present, it seems that the majority of people in power think the three pages of Mathematical Practices in Common Core, which they sometimes think is the “real” mathematics, are more important than the 75 pages of content standards, which they sometimes refer to as the “rote” mathematics. They are wrong. You learn Mathematical Practices just like the name implies; you practice mathematics with content.
There will always be people who think that teaching kids about geometric slides, flips, and turns is just as important as teaching them arithmetic. It isn’t. Ask any college math teacher.
What actually shocked me was two things. Firstly, the sheer nerve they show in calling their organisation “National Numeracy”. In ordinary English “numeracy” tends to refer precisely to the ability to do basic numerical calculations. In fact it is very often used so as to distinguish it from the more abstract understandings and creative methods associated with mathematics. What’s more, the “National Numeracy Strategy” was a government initiative in the late 90s which emphasised mental calculation and rejected the use of calculators. How on earth can they possibly justify calling their anti-numeracy campaign “National Numeracy”?
Further investigation of their website found a discussion of what numeracy is which concluded:
For our master-definition, we choose the international description of mathematical literacy:
“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”. (PISA)
So to get their definition of numeracy they decided it meant “mathematical literacy” and then managed to look up a definition of “mathematical literacy” which completely fails to mention numeracy. The first part of the definition about having “to identify and understand the role that mathematics plays in the world” is, to me, most reminiscent of the episode of the Simpsons “Girls Just Want to Have Sums”. In that episode Lisa is forced to attend a maths class especially aimed at empowering girls where they have to discuss how numbers make them feel rather than actually having to work anything out. This is also reflected in their full response to the draft primary curriculum, which repeatedly mentions the teaching of “attitudes”. With this dodgy definition of “numeracy”, it is no wonder National Numeracy actually campaigns to minimise the teaching of basic number skills. However, with the name “National Numeracy” they will continue to be reported in the media as if they were in favour, rather than against, numeracy.
The second thing that shocked me was a source of their funding. It was not surprising to see they were funded by some charities and a textbook publisher; dumbing-down often is. However, the first “funder” listed on their website was the building society Nationwide. Now it is very common for banks and building societies to be involved in backing organisations which support either numeracy or something like “financial literacy” and I don’t criticise them for doing so. But why, other than because they believed the name, should they fund an organisation which campaigns against the teaching of basic number skills? I’m not a member of Nationwide; it should be remembered it is a building society and is still owned by its members. If I was I’d be asking them why they backing this campaign. In particular I’d be asking:
- Do Nationwide agree with National Numeracy that too much time is spent teaching children how to carry out calculations?
- Do Nationwide agree with National Numeracy that there is a danger of an over-emphasis on “procedural tools” like times tables?
- Do Nationwide agree with National Numeracy that it is a potential problem that the new national curriculum focuses on “early instrumental methods and rote processes” or that children “do sums in classrooms”?
- Does Nationwide agree with National Numeracy that, rather than emphasising the ability to carry out calculations with numbers, numeracy should be about such things as “identify[ing] and understand[ing] the role that mathematics plays in the world … and engag[ing] with mathematics in ways that meet the needs of that individual’s life as a constructive, concerned and reflective citizen”?