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Numeracy is essential to levelling up, but more maths in schools may not be the answer

By Richard Harris, University of Bristol

The Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak’s, desire for maths to be compulsory up to age 18, invites two broader questions: what do we mean by maths, and what is the best way to teach it? For both, work and experiences drawn from geography can provide some useful guidance.

Often the answer to the first question is framed around numeracy: it is about having the confidence and the ability to do the sort of calculations that equip us for life, including the workplace (understanding compound interest, for example, to avoid accumulated debt; or being able to do relatively simple sums or algebraic manipulations, including calculating percentages). I doubt anyone would disagree that these skills are very important, not only to individual employment opportunities but also to tackling social inequalities that extend from educational inequalities in learning. Numeracy is as essential to navigating modern society as literacy. We won’t ‘level up’ without it.

However, there are other skills that are needed too. In my teaching, it is not specifically maths that I draw upon – at least, not maths that goes beyond that already taught to GCSE. It is data and computational skills and an ability to “reason with data”: to engage purposefully with quantitative information, to understand its strengths and shortcomings, to use it to evidence and to query, or to contest what others have claimed, and to communicate key findings through the design and display of, for examples, graphs, maps and tables. These are not just maths skills or even computational and statistical ones. They involve creativity and critical thinking.

This raises the question of how to teach these skills? Geographical teaching recognises that data skills are core to geography, not merely as an end to themselves, but because of what it means to ‘do geography’, to learn geography and to be a geographer. For example, we do not produce maps merely as an act of cartography, or as an exercise in visualisation. We do it, using data and data skills, to look for patterns in the map, how those might be changing over time, and to link what the map reveals to social or physical processes and/or the interactions between people and their environments. We encourage the use of data in classrooms and in students’ project work not to teach maths, exactly, but to teach geography. It is helpful if students learn to value and are not scared by data, understanding both the potentials and pitfalls of quantitative reasoning, digital technologies, and measurement amongst other methods of enquiry.

The issue, then, is not really ‘more maths’, but expanding the understanding of ‘maths-in-practice’ and embedded learning. Core Maths shares many of the same aims and objectives and is, in my judgement, an excellent companion to the data skills that are being cultivated within geography and other subjects. It is a great shame that there are not more universities recognising Core Maths as a valuable entry qualification. It provides strong foundations to help meet the Prime Minister’s aspirations, especially in partnership with other subject areas.

The risk is that placing too much emphasis on maths, and just maths, becomes counter-productive to what we all strive for, which is ’rounded’ students, well-equipped for navigating their place in the world. Maths, computational and statistical skills are important to geographical, as well as to wider learning. So too, are creativity and critical thinking, qualitative skills, empathy and understanding, curiosity about the world, and so forth. As an inherently interdisciplinary and cross-cutting subject, geography values the importance of scientific and mathematical skills, as well as those found in other areas of the arts, humanities and social sciences, too. Governments often place a lot of emphasis on STEM skills, but SHAPE (Social Sciences, Humanities, and the Arts for People and the Economy/Environment) skills are equally important for learning, people and the economy – skills such as problem solving, adaptability and creativity, communication and working with others.

Getting the balance right is not easy, and it is not always helped by any mismatch between the sorts of skills we want to nurture in students and how and what they are assessed on. For everything to add up, we need to look beyond just maths and recognise that by working across disciplines, to embed numeracy, data and other skills in teaching and assessment, the sum can be greater than its parts.

About the author: Richard Harris is Professor of Quantitative Social Geography, at University of Bristol

The Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) and the Geographical Association have both been actively involved in initiatives to advocate for and support the teaching and learning of data skills through geography.

Suggested further reading

Kinder, A. & Brace, S. (2022) The Geography and Education Research Group and school geography: Problematics and possibilities. Area, 54, 33– 40. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12769

Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). Data Skills in Geography – Useful Links: https://www.rgs.org/schools/teaching-resources/data-skills-in-geography-%E2%80%93-useful-links/

How to cite: Harris, R (2023, 19 April) Numeracy is essential to levelling up, but more maths in schools may not be the answer Geography Directions Available from: https://doi.org/10.55203/GWRD7995

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