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Math Science

Is Poor Numeracy Ruining Lives? 489

Hugh Pickens writes "The BBC reports on how millions of people struggle to understand a payslip or a train timetable, or pay a household bill. Government figures show that almost half the working population of England have only primary school math skills, and research suggests that weak math skills are linked with an array of poor life outcomes such as prison, unemployment, exclusion from school, poverty and long-term illness. 'We are paying for this in our science, technology and engineering industries but also in people's own ability to earn funds and manage their lives,' says Chris Humphries. He is the chairman of National Numeracy, an organization seeking to emulate the success of the National Literacy Trust, which has helped improve reading and writing standards since it was set up nearly 20 years ago. The Department for Education wants the vast majority of young people to study math up to 18 within a decade to meet the growing demand for employees with high level and intermediate math skills. 'It is simply inexcusable for anyone to say "I can't do maths,"' adds Humphries. "
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Is Poor Numeracy Ruining Lives?

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  • Citizenship math (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Beryllium Sphere(tm) ( 193358 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:36PM (#39223597) Homepage Journal

    A large part of the problem is that if they got math at all then it was part of the track to the physical sciences (algebra -> algebra 2 -> calculus -> differential equations).

    Voters who aren't in a physics-based career need math, but not the same branch of it. Statistics is critical. Understanding what correlation means and what it doesn't, what a control group is for, recognizing sample bias, and definitely the base rate fallacy are all vital for resisting propaganda.

  • by manonthemoon ( 537690 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:38PM (#39223617) Homepage

    My eldest son is a whiz- he's a couple years ahead and should get through AP Calculus and Stats by the time he gets through HS.

    On the other hand we adopted 5 girls from foster care and it is a STRUGGLE. I don't know how much of it is organic (all of them were exposed to drugs/alcohol in utero) and how much of it is early formative, but they all have incredible difficulty making the most basic inference or deduction or story problem. I'm really concerned for them because I forsee them potentially running into the roadblocks referenced by the article summary. But there are in fact SOME excuses for saying "I can't do maths." Some people may never be able to master the basics no matter how hard they try.

    Not to say we are in any manner giving up. They get extra tutoring at school and spend hours doing homework, despite being in elementary school, but different people have different top levels of achievement and sometimes that level is below what any of us would like.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:43PM (#39223711)
    Some of that isn't the cashiers fault. It's amazing how many people get confused if you try to count back change like that now.

    On the other hand, I've seen some registers that instead of showing change due as $14.68 will show
    Except with pictures of the coins and bills.
  • Big Deal. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by korgitser ( 1809018 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:47PM (#39223781)

    Millions of people struggle to understand. Whatever. We do remember that we come from a times when there was no math around at all, right? So how much time do we spend being happy abouth the fact that millions of people do understand a payslip or a train timetable? Making fuss about these millions without context shows poor skills in philosophy and can ruin lives.

    Some important questions to ask around these skills and the millions are here:
    How many and much total skills do people have?
    Is the total going up or down?
    Is the relative amount of math skills in this total going up or down?
    What are the other skills that might be replacing or being replaced by math skills?
    Which skills should be priorities? For which professions?

  • by improfane ( 855034 ) * on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:51PM (#39223849) Journal

    I come from the UK and personally find mathematics pretty difficult. I can work through problems on paper but my mental arithmetic is atrocious. By the time I two operands and an operator in my head and have broken up the problem into a simpler problem, I have forgotten the original two numbers...

    That said, mathematics should come the more you practice. I like to blame the school curriculum -- it is shit. The only reason why I am valuable is because I acquired computing skills playing on computers as a child.

    I'd like to blame mathematics textbooks but I cannot. My generation and a few before me have lost the willpower and motivation to actually study and learn things properly. Our education system does not really promote mathematics that well. My school staff was rife with young twenty somethings fresh out of university with no real ability to teach...

    Teaching has lost its respect and professionalism in the UK too. Add to the fact it became okay and even cool to be ignorant in modern culture.

  • Re:Maths?? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mikael ( 484 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @03:51PM (#39223859)

    Unfortunately, while we used to have separate exams for arithmetic and mathematics, the powers that be decided that the best way to narrow the gap between low achieving inner city schools and high-achieving middle class schools was to merge the many different exams into single subjects; arithmetic and mathematics became general mathematics; physics, chemistry, biology and APH became general science.

    Back 30 years, there used to be adverts on TV at every lunch-time to help people with literacy and numeracy skills, titled "On the move". They just mentioned a hotline anyone could call to arrange an appointment with an adviser (information pack or application forms wouldn't be much use). These days, it's cheaper for employers to employ East Europeans with English as a second language.

  • Re:Numeracy != math (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 02, 2012 @04:10PM (#39224151)

    You got that right. I studied mathematics, have a master's degree in statistics, work as a statistical programmer; but I can not do arithmetic. I can write GEE code in my sleep, but I can't balance my checkbook.

  • by willworkforbeer ( 924558 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @04:13PM (#39224197)
    Am I the only one who feels the urge to raise a toast to someone who adopted not 1, but 5, children from foster care? Well done.
  • by manonthemoon ( 537690 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @04:24PM (#39224389) Homepage

    Once we met them we really couldn't 'pick and choose' - they are all sisters- it would have been impossible emotionally.

    In for a penny, in for a pound...

  • by js_sebastian ( 946118 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @04:58PM (#39224937)

    And if, after they've rung it in and had the cash register tell them how much change to give, you try to give them a little extra change so that they'll give you back a nice round bill instead, then they'll just stare at you like you're trying to pay with live snails.

    This is also the case, for different reasons, in Japan. If you give someone extra money to make the change a round number, they give it back to you first, and then give you change. And the most hilarious thing is that vending machines there have the exact same behavior.

    Disclairmer: I am no expert on japan, but this was the experience I had on a short trip there several years ago.

  • by Jah-Wren Ryel ( 80510 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @06:35PM (#39226257)

    Have you considered that they aren't necessarily "mathematically challenged" but instead need to approach it from a different angle? For example, I've worked with a handful of physical trainers (as a client) and universally all of them thought they were bad at math - not even able to understand compound interest bad.

    But all of them that were good at their job also had a natural intuition for things like geometry and even calculus because those maths were all part of their jobs. For example, the body is a bunch of interconnected levers with ranges of motion described by arcs and different rates of change in motion can be safe or dangerous. They work with math all day long but they don't recognize it as math - they even had a hard time understanding that it was math when I tried to explain it to them - their schooling had so completely failed them that they couldn't recognize the math right in front of them.

  • by Brain-Fu ( 1274756 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @06:40PM (#39226327) Homepage Journal

    Aristotle pointed out that one's capacity for virtue is limited by one's intelligence.

    To put it simply: if you truly want to do the right thing, but you are so uneducated that you can't figure out what the right thing is, you wind up not doing the right thing. The thing you actually do is one of the wrong things, and so it is probably harmful to someone.

    Even if the soul of such a person is as pure as untrodden snow, the actual outcomes of their actual actions are equivalent to those of a morally inferior person.

    When a person is in a position that his actions could harm others (such as, say, an airplane pilot who’s actions could crash the plane), that person is morally obligated to attain and maintain a high level of competence. However, since we all live as part of an interconnected society, we are *all* in this position. Any action we take could harm others if not thought through, so lifelong self-education is a moral imperative for all of us.

    Everyone has genetic limits to intelligence, and limits on opportunities for education, which are forgivable. When you hit those limits and need to make decisions that are beyond them, the morally correct thing to do is seek guidance from someone who is more appropriately educated.

    If you do neither; if you insist on remaining ignorant and on directing your life based on this ignorance, then you harm everyone around you. You are therefore guilty of negligence, and therefore you are a bad person.

  • by AxeTheMax ( 1163705 ) on Friday March 02, 2012 @06:55PM (#39226511)

    Well, if tax rates are 100% then there is no disposable money left, so no economic activity and no tax revenue

    No economic activity at 100%? The citizenry may not be spending money but the government will still be doing so; if the money is not spent it will be a meaningless concept. If in this hypothetical situation the government spends the money to to cater adequately for all citizens needs (i.e. the nation becomes an utopian socialism), then there is in theory no problem. It is not necessary for the government to spend the money itself, it is perfectly possible for the government to give every citizen an allowance to spend according their wishes. Don't ask for examples; this is just a rebuttal of the quoted statement, which is not 'obviously correct'. I appreciate it might make more sense in the context of monetarist economics. But that comes with a whole load of preconceptions, which you have taken for granted.

"I have not the slightest confidence in 'spiritual manifestations.'" -- Robert G. Ingersoll