Have you learnt something new in the last few weeks, or picked up a long-forgotten hobby?
If social media is to be believed (and of course, it shouldn’t always be)1 we are all furiously busy with learning to bake sourdough, crochet a blanket, grow our own tomatoes, or hold a fiendishly tricky yoga pose. Confined to our homes (and gardens, if we are lucky enough to have them), in May we may be looking to learn from the gently blossoming flora around us and encourage our intellectual, emotional or physical powers to participate in a similar blooming, too. But with such a bewildering array of possibilities, what are we choosing to focus on?
We know that innumeracy is a drain on national success and a stumbling block for individual advancement.2 Sensibly, the government has supported those involved in furloughing to announce the offer of free online courses3 so that they can improve their own skills in digital fitness, literacy and basic maths. Online providers such as Coursera have reported large increases in sign-ups for their free courses in the last few weeks,4 so there is obviously an appetite for using unexpected leisure time for self-improvement. But will the simple existence of these courses help reduce the nation’s innumeracy, I wonder?
A recent report5 indicated that many of the 18.5m UK adults (nearly half the working population) who have numeracy skills at or below those of an 11-year-old also have a negative attitude towards maths. Research6 suggests that the relationship between negative attitudes and failure is cyclical – failure leads to negative attitudes and negative attitudes often reduce the likelihood of perseverance, and perseverance is usually necessary for success.
Sometimes negative attitudes surface as maths anxiety. Whilst some academics have argued that maths anxiety may appear very early in childhood and this later affects attainment, others have argued that it is poor performance as children that influences the development of maths anxiety later on. It is likely that the relationship between maths anxiety and maths performance works both ways – poorer-than-expected/hoped-for performance may lead to us feeling maths anxious, or at least exacerbate existing maths anxious feelings. Likewise, maths anxiety is likely to have a negative impact on performance.
Image source: https://www.nationalnumeracy.org.uk/
But attitudes don’t always arise from poor performance and vice versa. We are surrounded by ill-thought out advertisements7 suggesting it is ultra-feminine, or simply not cool, to be poor at maths. How often have you heard public figures decrying their own maths ability? The reaction of the presenters to the Radio 4 Puzzle for Today are often a prime example, with throw-away comments which somehow suggest it is OK – somehow funny, or “normal” – to be bad at maths.
These factors all contribute to the crisis in numeracy. It’s not just a little problem – it’s a massive one. It costs the country about £20 billion a year (and that was before COVID-19). It affects individuals’ opportunities and their financial well-being, as well as their ability to be able to function in society. Support for these adults should:
- acknowledge the attitudinal barriers to learning
- have appropriate literacy levels
- focus on big important conceptual ideas rather than quick fixes which are quickly forgotten
- use appropriate contexts which don’t dumb down
- allow early success rather than waiting for late failure
- provide opportunities for creativity, enjoyment and fun
Are these the kinds of learning opportunities you are being offered, or taking part in?
In 2019, only four of out of the top 100 courses on Coursera8 were maths-related. Other hugely popular online courses in the past have covered topics as diverse as Bitcoin, the science of wellbeing, introduction to psychology, Chinese and machine learning.9 Really successful online courses have the potential to reach millions and can be totally life-changing for those taking part. One such is the National Numeracy Challenge which will be central to the communication around National Numeracy Day on 13th May. A small diversion from the national lockdown to improve productivity as a nation and help boost our collective numeracy in an innovative and exciting way.
Join the conversation: You can tweet us @CambridgeMaths or comment below.