We use math in every aspect of our lives at work and in practical everyday activities at home and beyond. We use math when we go shopping or plan a holiday, decide on a mortgage or decorate a room. Good numeracy is essential to us, as parents helping our children learn, as patients understanding health information, as citizens making sense of statistics and economic news. Decisions in life are so often based on numerical information: to make the best choices, we need to be numerate.
The cost of poor numeracy
In the US, individuals at the lowest literacy and numeracy levels have a higher rate of unemployment and earn lower wages than the national average. Low literacy costs the US at least $225 billion each year in non-productivity in the workforce, crime, and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment.
Research by economists from Pro Bono Economics reveals the damaging impact that poor numeracy is having on the UK economy. Their report estimates the cost of outcomes associated with low levels of adult numeracy at around £20.2 billion per year, or about 1.3 percent of the UK’s GDP. The UK ranked 26th in the Pisa tests (Programme for International Student Assessment), which have become the most influential rankings in international education, based on tests taken by more than 500,000 secondary school learners in 65 countries.
The WEF report provides an overview of the competitive performance of 140 countries by providing a ranking and scoring for each economy. The report looks at 12 fundamental pillars of an economy, which include infrastructure, higher education and training, and macro-economic environment, and uses a detailed profile of each to determine present and future.
The quality of math and science education in the UK was ranked 46th by the WEF.
While improving the quality of teaching and education provided is certainly a key to improving numeracy, there’s more involved than just that.
One hundred seventy-one children with a mean age of 10.08 years participated in a study by Marjean Kulp et al. This study, conducted at the Ohio State University College of Optometry in 2004 was designed to determine whether or not performance on tests of visual perception could predict the children with poor current achievement in mathematics.
Visual perception refers to the process of interpreting and organizing visual information. Visual perceptual skill is often subdivided into areas such as visual discrimination and visual memory. Visual discrimination involves the ability to attend to and identify a figure’s distinguishing features and details, such as shape, orientation, color and size. Visual memory refers to the ability to remember a visual image.
Controls for age and verbal cognitive ability were included in all regression analyses because the failure to control for verbal ability has been a criticism of some literature investigating the relation between visual and academic skills.
Kulp et al. concluded: “poor visual perceptual ability is significantly related to poor achievement in mathematics, even when controlling for verbal cognitive ability. Therefore, visual perceptual ability, and particularly visual memory, should be considered to be amongst the skills that are significantly related to mathematics achievement.”
Role of visual memory confirmed
A research study (2013) by Dr. Dénes Szűcs and team from the University of Cambridge, UK set out to compare various potential theories of dyscalculia in more than a thousand 9-year-old children.
Dyscalculia refers to a severe math learning difficulty, which affects roughly 6 percent of school children. These children show normal intelligence and their reading skills may be perfect. Dyscalculia is often described as “like dyslexia, but for math”.
Children with dyscalculia often have difficulty understanding numerical quantity. For example, they find it difficult to connect abstract symbols, such as a number, to the numerical magnitude it represents. They can’t see the connection, for instance, between five fingers and the number ‘5’. This is similar to children with dyslexia who have difficulty connecting sounds with letters. Children with dyscalculia may also have difficulty memorizing math tables, counting or skip counting in sequence and telling time. They may struggle with basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division concepts, often needing to rely on alternative methods to solution problems (counting on fingers, drawing diagrams, etc.).
The researchers found that children with dyscalculia showed poor visuo-spatial memory performance. For example, they performed poorly when they had to remember the locations of items in a spatial grid. In addition, dyscalculic children’s ability to resist distraction from irrelevant information was also weak. For example, on a task where they had to choose which of two animals was larger in real life they performed poorly when the real-life larger animal was smaller in its display size.
The findings challenge the notion that dyscalculia is characterized by problems with a specialized ‘number sense’ because this number sense was intact in this sample of children with dyscalculia.