Yes, there’s a numeracy crisis – so what’s the solution?

Finland has much to offer Australia and other nations when it comes to mathematics education. StreetFly JZ

There’s been plenty of commentary recently on the “numeracy crisis” threatening the economies of many developed nations, including Australia.

A 2009 report by the National Academies in the US was not the first to highlight the desperate need to improve mathematical education, particularly at the K-12 level, where so many otherwise talented students either fall behind or lose interest. The report’s summary concluded:

“The new demands of international competition in the 21st century require a workforce that is competent in and comfortable with mathematics.

"There is particular concern about the chronically low mathematics and science performance of economically disadvantaged students and the lack of diversity in the science and technical workforce. Particularly alarming is that such disparities exist in the earliest years of schooling and even before school entry …”

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The committee found that, although virtually all young children have the capability to learn and become competent in mathematics, the potential to learn mathematics in the early years of school is not currently realised for most.

This stems from a lack of opportunities to learn mathematics either in early childhood settings or through everyday experiences at home and in communities. And this is especially the case for the economically disadvantaged.

A UK report released last month found that millions of British adults have numerical skills at a level more commonly expected of an 11-year-old. The report also found that young people with poor numeracy skills were twice as likely to drop out of school and twice as likely to be unemployed.

The report’s authors called for a change in society’s attitude to mathematics, so that being bad at maths should no longer be seen as a “badge of honour”.

According to the same UK report, one in five of business members questioned last year said they had to teach remedial mathematics to their employees. As James Fothergill, head of education and skills at the employers’ group CSI, explained:

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“It’s really important that [employees] are helped to apply maths skills and concepts in practical situations, such as being able to work out what a 30% discount is without doing it on the till.”

Many business leaders also pointed to the fact few of their employees were able to spot “rogue figures” – data that is likely to be in error.

In February this year, speaking at a forum of national educators in Canberra, Australia’s Nobel Prize-winning astronomer Brian Schmidt went so far as to warn that Australia’s resource boom was threatened by a lack of highly-trained engineers, saying:

“Too many kids who are willing and able to excel at maths are taught by teachers without the competency required to teach the subjects they are teaching.”

At the same forum, Australia’s Chief Scientist Ian Chubb said part of the problem was that mathematics and science courses were considered “boring”.

“We need to think about how to deliver the science and mathematics to a generation of students that have many more options available to them,” he said.

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The situation is better elsewhere. Finland and Canada, for example, rated an “A” in an international ranking of 17 developed nations in education and skills. Finland has ranked at (or near) the top of the OECD nations in educational performance for more than ten straight years.

Canada’s strength derives in part from the system’s primary focus on K-12 education. On the other hand, Canada faces the challenge of educating and training the three million adults, in a country of under 35m people, who have only “Level 1” literacy. This would seem to show that you do get what you pay for.

Of course other countries, such as Japan, Taiwan, China, Korea and Singapore are not standing still, with impressive gains in educational performance.

So what can be done, for the good of everyone? Perhaps all nations can examine the educational programs of highly successful nations such as Finland.

The Finnish educational system eschews standards tests, preferring instead custom tests devised by highly-qualified teachers. (Several decades ago the government required all teachers to have master’s degrees).

Another is Finland’s focus on basic education from age seven until 16, at which point 95% of the population continues in either vocational or academic high schools. According to Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and author:

“The primary aim of education is to serve as an equalising instrument for society.”

It’s a nice thought, and one we’d all do well to take note of.


A version of this article appeared on Math Drudge.