Mathematics minus Numeracy: A first step toward decluttering

We hope that the work to review the mathematics (and digital technologies) curriculum over the next 12 months does indeed result in clarity about what is to be taught.

The process has begun – finally! We hope that the work to review the mathematics (and digital technologies) curriculum over the next 12 months does indeed result in clarity about what is to be taught. The seemingly poor performance by our students in mathematics should not be blamed on them or their teachers. The jargon and lists of poorly connected ideas in the current mathematics curriculum does indeed make it challenging to comprehend.

There have been many articles published in popular media claiming that the mathematics curriculum has been ‘dumbed down.’ The sequence of content in the current national curriculum is loosely defined, lacks clarity, and indeed does teach some key content (such as fractions) later than nearly all countries. So possibly the criticisms have merit.

One major aspect that clouds the current situation is the use of the word ‘numeracy’ along with mathematics. Many of the current critics of the curriculum, get this wrong. The opinion articles often use numeracy to describe what should be taught, but this then contributes to the confusion. The ACARA document states that, ‘numeracy encompasses the knowledge, skills, behaviours and dispositions that students need to use mathematics in a wide range of situations.’ The words real-life situations and authentic contexts are used frequently to give additional detail. Other than these descriptors, which the mathematics curriculum does include, little coherent advice is provided.

Twenty years ago, a few countries used the word numeracy to describe mathematical goals, but they soon discovered that this was confusing because numeracy does not have any clear content. There is a wide perception, even among the experts, that numeracy is something associated with the basic skills of mathematics. But that does not seem to be the case when the descriptors in the Australian curriculum are analyzed. Today, Australia is the only country that has an overlap (and hence confusion) of the two words – mathematics and numeracy. The UK was the first to stress the importance of numeracy, but since 2014 the focus of their curriculum is mathematics. In fact, the UK national mathematics document is sharply written, very clear and stresses the important content. It would be a good guide for our schools.

Applications of mathematics are spreading wider and deeper. In early May the Federal Treasurer presented his view of the economic future of Australia at a speech to the National Press Club. He spoke of the need to ‘upskill and reskill the work force for digital and eco-commerce technologies.’ He did not describe these skills, but many include a good grounding in mathematics.

Many of the jobs today already require confidence with mathematical skills that do not appear in the current mathematics curriculum. The lack of preparation for future jobs will be more acute unless the upcoming review makes some major modifications. Many of the important skills are collectively described as quantitative studies. Specifically, this includes knowledge of a widening range of statistical techniques, applications involving discrete methods such as graph theory, and the capability to search data (sometimes called data mining). Our students need preparation in these areas to help develop and understand future technologies.  

This writer is hopeful that the review of the Australia mathematics curriculum will result in an easy-to-follow document that meets the needs of our students. While it is a stretch to expect that ‘numeracy’ will be extracted from the jargon of the current mathematics curriculum, a true and proper decluttering will be appreciated.

ORIGO Education
ORIGO Education was established in 1995 by co-founders James Burnett and Dr Calvin Irons. ORIGO is focused on creating a love of mathematics. ORIGO publishes and covers all facets of primary mathematics education from traditional printed products to digital interactive resources and professional learning throughout the world