Numeracy across the curriculum: It’s not just the numbers.

If the Second World War began in 1939 and ended 6 years later, what year did the war end?

Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI… what’s going on here?

The Nazis calculated there to be 11 million Jews in Europe in 1942; they killed 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, over 1 million of them in Auschwitz.

Most students will give you the right answer to the first question, but I have found over time that many don’t recognise the year as a number, so fail to ‘count on’. Largely students are fine with regnal numbers written as Roman numerals, but they can get their I’s crossed, and begin to wonder whether Henry in fact had eight wives. Trying to impress my classes with the enormity of numbers in the Shoah, I left many of them cold.

This might be as far as I would take ‘numeracy in History’. If I was feeling bold, I might lob my GCSE class the odd graph, always with the health warning that statistics lie. Sure, there was always a shed load of numbers for them to learn (demonstrators in Saint Petersburg, German soldiers permitted by the Treaty of Versailles), and dates (I won’t lie, there are dates in History). But, that’s not numeracy, if there is no actual calculating to do, right?

Then along comes David Didau with his The Secret of Literacy, and a number-bomb explodes. @Mr_Numerator gets the Numeracy across the Curriculum job and suddenly I am being ‘challenged’ to ‘reflect’ on my own ‘practice’. I realise I have helped to spawn a monster: a PD innovator who sounds more like me than I do.

So, for two weeks I have been reflecting. Then I consider that ‘reflecting’ may actually be a term borrowed from maths. I was trapped in a conversation with @liamdawson9 and found myself discussing a footballer’s low centre of gravity, how well a badminton player covered angles from the back of the court and the trajectory of a ball bowled in cricket. A lead teacher mentioned using the snowball technique during questioning. Someone struggling with behaviour management hoped they could win over the critical mass of her students. Before I knew it, in my own History and Politics classes, I was extrapolating and correlating, upscaling from random samples, eliminating variables and divining significance. I had reached a tipping point (or perhaps a turning point, or maybe a pivotal moment). By the end, thanks to my student teacher who – get this – was having year 9s collect data on attitudes of social groups towards the Nazis in the 1920s, I knew the difference between a line graph and a frequency polygon.

What has happened? It is beginning to dawn on me that ‘numeracy’ (if that is the term that denotes application of mathematical concepts) is much more prevalent than I had previously thought. I am a career-long advocate of literacy, and know that every time I open my mouth, or get a student to open theirs, or ask a class to read something, or get Danny to pick up a pen, I am engaged in the business of literacy. Perhaps especially as a Humanities teacher, I will frequently ask students to consider their reading strategy before tackling a text, I will model and insist upon formal writing, and I can nominalise and foreground a topic sentence like nobody’s business. But beyond the obvious – the dates, the stats, the regnal numbers – I was content to let the scientists and geographers and technologists help out the Maths department with their numeracy.

Not now. Now I realise that if I want to spot a trend, project forward or consider a range of evidence, I am borrowing the language of maths. I may be using it simply metaphorically, as so much so-called technical language is. But even so, I should acknowledge the origins of my terms, give a nod to the numbers, hint at least to my students that what they have just learned with a ruler and a calculator might also be of use in my classroom. And, if I am to really use the terms as they were intended, then there is a duty on me to know my line graphs from my frequency polygons.

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2 thoughts on “Numeracy across the curriculum: It’s not just the numbers.

  1. Interesting post Mark. I think that numerate non-mathematicians often overlook how much maths they rely on to do their job. I don’t consider myself a mathematician, but I am a highly critical user of statistics (for example). Have you explicitly shared this insight with your students?

    • Cheers Harry. When looking at stats my favourite question is to ask them what’s not there. But increasingly I want them to correlate what they see in the data with what else they know.
      Mainly however my blog reflects what I am thinking about that age old teacher get-out “maths is tough” or “I wasn’t good at maths either. ” I would never say that about English:in fact I go out of my way to tell them what I’m reading or writing.
      So, a promise to myself:every time I find myself using a term borrowed from maths, I’m going to at least draw attention to it.

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