Dreaming of Debate—Dragging the Battle between Numeracy and Literacy into Overdrive

Updated: Dec 3, 2019

To the highly-esteemed ladies and gentlemen of the board of judges; to my dear colleagues in this noble profession; to wide-eyed students present here; to stage mothers and fathers everywhere; Good day!

I stand before you now to contradict my real position in this debate. But, for the sake of argument, I am bound to assert and defend that the enhancement of numeracy skills trumps the enrichment of literacy ability in the area of Senior High School (SHS) education.

Technically speaking, in this age of super computers and hyper Internet connectivity, the more mathematical knowledge and problem-solving capability become the first priority in the academe. These SHS students would be the future of the workforce and the top industry jobs in IT, health care and financial management, to name a few, might pose a mismatch of skills if these K-12 learners and eventual graduates are NOT NUMERATES (vis a vis LITERATES).

Ms. Maribel Pangan, a teacher herself, wrote in Sun Star Pampanga, that “numeracy is the combination of mathematical knowledge and problem solving (aptitude) required from all persons to function successfully within our technological world.” It is “more than knowing about numbers and number operations. Numeracy is (a very) important foundation of learning in (Senior High) School.” This extra-significant academic foundation is crucial for individuals “to function successfully as adults in today’s world.” We must understand that numeracy skills are utilized daily at home, in the workplace and even during vacations in faraway lands. “Numerate students” have that distinct advantage as they “can deal with numbers confidently and competently” while owning the capacity to “compute on paper, in their heads, and by using technology.” Most importantly, numerates “can estimate and solve problems in various situations.”

In support of putting more emphasis on improving numeracy skills among SHS learners, Belinda Vernon, head of research at New Philanthropy Capital, echoed the sentiments of business executives and educators saying that the UK Board of Education cried foul on the impact of pitiful mathematical capability on office efficiency (and I quote), “Some employers express surprise and concern at the inability of young persons to perform simple numerical operations involved in business.” Citing statistics in a first world country like England, “One adult in five is innumerate. These adults can't work out their change when they go shopping, or help their children with homework. And, they are twice as likely to be unemployed as people who are numerate.” Still in the UK, it is known that “progress on numeracy lags that of literacy.” Lord Mosser, who reviewed post-school literacy and numeracy skills in 1999, is quite upset “by the lack of change” stating that, "Since my report 10 years ago, we've seen some progress with literacy, but not with numeracy.” Now, you can only imagine how much worse the situation is in the Philippines.

Although similar to literacy learning in many facets, everyone in the Philippines has the guts to speak broken English that is understandable to foreigners but some cannot even count one to ten as the “baggage that accompanies adult (Math) learning” is indeed very heavy and this contains “ingrained fear of maths, a dislike of classroom-based teaching, or very low self-esteem.”

On the other hand, common sense will tell us that it does not take a genius to know that numeracy skills are highly relevant to SHS learners since these abilities “can be incorporated in everyday life in a number of ways.” Putting an exclamation point on the reality “that numbers are all around us” will aid these more mature students in establishing true connections “between math and its application to real-life scenarios” such as budgeting their meager or bigger allowance to live happily for the whole week; measuring everything from the appropriate quantity of ingredients needed in cooking meals to the correct dosage of vitamins or medications they need to take to be healthy or get well fast; and calculating all forms of activities from the right number of hours they spend on social media to the amount of time they devote on ML (Mobile Legends) lest they want to be called out by their parents for lacking in discipline or quality (and quantity) family time.

For instance, Cancer Research UK was surprised to find out "that 46% of their sample got the answer wrong when asked whether a risk of 1 in 100, 1 in 10, or 1 in 1000 resulted in more chance of them getting a disease.” Aside from comprehending risks, “patients need numeracy skills to manage their diets, make and keep medical appointments, measure medicine doses, or simply work out a routine for taking tablets throughout a day.” Numeracy is also vital in “navigating the healthcare system and choosing hospital services on the basis of nurse-patient ratios, readmission rates, and friends and family ratings.” As it is imperative for patients, “numeracy is (equally) crucial for healthcare workers who are expected to practice complex calculations in highly critical and stressful situations.”

Herrera and Dio (2016) of Sorsogon State College of Graduate Studies emphasized in their study on the “Extent of Readiness of Grade 10 Students for General Mathematics of SHS in Sorsogon City” that “a state with citizens equipped with scientific and mathematical skills is on its way to industrialization.” Results exposed that “students are moderately ready on 17 out of 25 prerequisite competencies of Gen. Math and not ready on 9 of them.”

In another research conducted by Palafox, et. al. (2018) on the “Perceptions of the SHS Students on their Employability Skills,” it was discovered that “ABM (Accountancy, Business and Management) students perceived that they are most competent in entrepreneurial skills (but) they are not as highly competent in numeracy skills, which should have been a common skill of ABM students because it is the foundation of the academic track.”

Statistics from the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) hammers the argument that development of numeracy skills (and not literacy aptitude) must be the primary cause of academic concern in the SHS arena. To wit, in that year’s TIMSS records regarding eight-grade students, “the Philippines ranked 41st in Math and 42nd in Science” among 45 participating countries in this grade level. Embarrassingly, “our score was more than 100 points lower than Malaysia and more than 200 points lower than Singapore, which ranked first!” Our fourth-grade pupils fared even worse placing 23rd in both Math and Science considering that there were only 25 countries that joined the study in this category. Once again, we scored “more than 200 points lower than the first-ranked Singapore!” Only the 2003 results are presented here because the Philippines did not bother joining the study in the subsequent years perhaps for fear of being ranked the worst. I can probably stomach that we’re a materially poor nation but to be a state of “bopols” (dumb) is absolutely inexcusable.

Aljemedin (2019) in his study “Teaching SHS Mathematics: Problems and Interventions,” cited that “low performance of students (in Math) has been attributed to students’ lack of mastery of basic skills, stigma and language used which can be aggravated by user-unfriendly and erroneous books.” Thus, this point certainly supports the greatest need “to constructively prepare the SHS students in (comprehending and) applying the twin goals of Mathematics [critical thinking and problem solving] in their future career and post-secondary education.”

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), “our world is profoundly shaped by science and technology” wherein numeracy skills extremely factor in. As a matter of fact, “science and mathematics education (SME) that is relevant and of quality can develop critical and creative thinking, help learners to understand and participate in public policy discussions, encourage behavioural changes that can put the world on a more sustainable path and stimulate socio-economic development.” Therefore, SME is a serious contributor to the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals approved by the world’s leaders in 2000. In the same UNESCO report, the need for numeracy skills augmentation was further proven as it was stated that “both national and international evaluations show that, on completion of basic education, many pupils’ mathematics knowledge and competencies fall short of the expected level. Moreover, the disparities observed between and within countries give cause for concern.” The report even stressed that everybody should realized that “mathematics is omnipresent in today’s world—notably in technological items all around us.” This is why it is of utmost importance for basic education, particularly in SHS, to maximize its influence on bringing “mathematics to the fore, especially because ‘mathematical literacy’ requirements far exceed needs traditionally associated with basic computational knowledge.”

To achieve the total coherence and complementary link between mathematics education and scientific learning towards the full acquisition and application of numeracy skills in social and economic progress along with “citizenship and personal fulfilment,” SHS “education should make it possible for mathematics to be both an individual and a collective life experience (which) must stimulate by setting challenges while cultivating values of solidarity” in order to escape the stereotype that numeracy talents are not usable in actual human life.

As soon as it is taught well, “numeracy enables the development of the mathematical knowledge and competencies necessary for integrated and active participation in a given society and for adaptation to foreseeable changes in that context.” It opens the door to a wider world “in which young people are educated” and well-prepared “to take up the (enormous) challenges facing humanity today in the fields of health, environment and energy.” Hence, the need to focus more on numeracy skills education in the SHS level.

This battle has just begun.

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