claremarieegan Mar/ 13/ 2019 | 0

In my first article, The State of Math, I briefly mentioned the term “math literacy” and in this post, I want to talk about it in depth.

I’ve come across many different definitions of math literacy, but in general, it’s defined as an approach to learning and teaching math that emphasizes real-world applications, favoring concepts and vocabulary over memorization and computation procedures, and being able to recognize how mathematics comes into play in our everyday lives.

Math literacy is becoming a more popular term in the math education community as educators consider possible curriculum changes that could help students better succeed in mathematics. In my last article, I listed some statistics on the state of math in the United States today - which, unfortunately, came together to paint a fairly grim picture when it comes to math education. I mentioned that in 2015, the United States was ranked 40th in math literacy out of 70 countries evaluated.

This ranking was created by PISA - the Programme for International Student Assessment - which tests 15 year-olds around the world in mathematics, reading, and science every three years.

Obviously, ranking 40th in math is not where any country wants to be. So what about math literacy makes it so different from the way we teach math here in the United States? And is math literacy even an effective metric for measuring mathematical readiness?

I have spent a lot of time trying to understand the fundamental differences between our current math education approach and math literacy. One definition, which you can about read HERE, defines math literacy in comparison to literacy. Think about when you were learning how to read: not only did you learn how to pronounce words on the page, but you learned what those words actually meant, you practiced writing them, and you learned to use them in real conversation.

Math literacy places a similar emphasis in developing mathematical terminology and in teaching concepts in tandem with their real-world applications (not as a footnote in an otherwise boring algebra textbook). Mathematical literacy requires integrating concepts into broader, real-world context, and there are no shortages of examples to do this. 

Mathematical literacy is interesting to me because I think it sheds light on a lot of different issues that relate math education. For one, our narrow and computation-heavy math curriculum is often boring and repetitive. Focusing on math literacy has the potential to fix this. I would further argue that spending years on the same set of computational concepts does not actually benefit students and does not prepare them better for college courses in mathematics and STEM.

I think a new approach to math powered by a focus on math literacy could help close the gaps in other math-related areas. Think: financial literacy - something that many Americans continue to struggle with.

The Standard & Poor’s Global Financial Literacy Survey ranked the United States 14th in the world in financial literacy, with a financial literacy rate of 57%. Considering we have the world’s largest economy, 57% is not good.

In addition to finance, mathematical concepts are used in so many other ways on a daily basis. Math literacy - with its emphasis on real-world applications - could help us better prepare to navigate the plethora of numbers thrown at us during election cycles, which are often taken out of context. Or it could help us understand the right questions to ask when looking at prognosis rates for a disease. Essentially, math literacy can help us better understand the world we live in.

I think a real overhaul in our pre-collegiate mathematics education is needed - an overhaul that emphasizes math literacy over traditional ways of teaching math. Making such a change would greatly benefit all students, but I think it would especially benefit student who do NOT go into math-based majors and jobs. Switching the educational emphasis from computational problems to concepts and real-world applications would give non-STEM students exposure to concepts they may not learn elsewhere.

There are a ton of great reading materials on math literacy. One source that I have particularly found fascinating is a report written by the Mathematical Council of the Alberta Teachers’ Association .

The report lays out both an argument for switching to a math literacy focused math curriculum and poses some really great and challenging questions as to how such a change would be made. It's a great read, but it was written way back in 2001/2002, so it begs the question: why aren’t we hearing more about math literacy?

Perhaps math literacy poses too much of a challenge - too much change in our current curriculum, but if it can benefit students, should we shy away from changes - even if they are drastic?

One important area of potential change is our standardized testing system and how it evaluates mathematical preparedness.

Think about the ACT and SAT - multiple-choice, computation-focused exams, which aren’t really consistent with how mathematics is taught at the college level. Similarly, state-wide tests used to evaluate math readiness at the middle school level are usually similar and can often lead to teachers spending a ton of time teaching for one specific test (see one such example here: the Chicago PARCC exam that was recently canceled in 2015).

Should we change our teaching approach? Last week, I read a great article (see: HERE).

It discusses the possibility of favoring more individual-tailored approaches when it comes to math and specifically when choosing which math courses a student takes at the college level. For example, the article suggests that - especially for students in non-STEM majors, taking courses emphasizing on interpreting and handling data rather than a mandated algebra or calculus sequence would be more useful long-term.

I think these ideas could be extended down to the high school and middle school levels. Our current math education sequence - algebra for many, many years, some geometry, a little trig, and then calculus if you get that far - is mundane, repetitive, and practically 100% computation focused. Instead, courses that focus on statistics and data, logic, and mathematical modeling could be tailored to students at these levels, which would not only emphasize modern applications in mathematics but also widen students’ understanding of what mathematics encompasses.

Such changes would require a lot of study and effort both in individual schools and at the national level, but it would be worth it if we can make math accessible to a larger number of students and help ground students in mathematical concepts that they will use for the rest of their lives. It's important to keep the conversation and debate open around math education and how we can make improvements.If we don't, our students will only continue to fall further and further behind in preparedness and if we become too stuck in our current approach, it will be that much harder to make changes in the future. 

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