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Critical connections between numeracy and vulnerability in adult life
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Critical connections between numeracy and vulnerability in adult life

Comment 6 minute read

Research shows numeracy is critical to improving the social and economic status, and overall well-being of low-skilled or otherwise vulnerable adults.

A new special issue of the international mathematics education research journal, ZDM Mathematics Education, has just been published. The issue is the first time ZDM has focused solely on the area of adult numeracy. The lead, survey article, of which I was privileged to be a co-author, is titled “Numeracy, adult education, and vulnerable adults: a critical view of a neglected field”. My co-authors were Iddo Gal from the University of Haifa, Anke Grotlüschen from the University of Hamburg and Gabriele Kaiser, also from the University of Hamburg.

In our paper we examined selected issues related to the intersection of three broad areas: numeracy, adult education, and vulnerability. First, and critically, our view of numeracy encompasses:

  • the ways in which people, both adults and young people, cope with the mathematical, quantitative and statistical demands of adult life, and
  • the belief that numeracy is an important outcome of schooling and is a foundational skill for all adults.

While the term numeracy is used in some countries in this way, other expressions, such as quantitative literacy and mathematical literacy are also used internationally. The diversity of terms used for numeracy is also complicated by the lack of an equivalent term in some languages. What is meant by numeracy can also vary when applied to school children as opposed to adults.

Our survey paper examines adult numeracy, with a focus on potential sources of vulnerability, including systemic factors, dispositional factors and affect factors. The focus on vulnerability stems from the realisation that concerns of policy makers and educators alike often centre on populations seen as vulnerable.

We name and address five numeracy domains, look at the literacy–numeracy linkages, the functional and critical aspects of numeracy, and the centrality of numeracy practices, and note sources of vulnerability for each of these areas. We also introduce aspects of the varied papers published in the full issue of ZDM Mathematics Education, and point to findings regarding adult learners who may be deemed vulnerable. The areas the papers covered included, amongst other topics: low-numerate adults and students; people in financial debt; gender, age and the elderly; migrants and refugees, aboriginal or indigenous persons (including one piece of research from Australia); people with learning differences/difficulties; and also imprisoned persons.

One of our key conclusions is that numeracy should have a similar standing to that of literacy, due to humanistic, theoretical, civic and functional considerations. This means, however, that numeracy must also be differentiated in the formulation of adult education policies and practices, as well as in educational research.

Our paper points to the five domains in which separate but connected numeracies are needed by adults:

  • digital numeracy
  • financial numeracy
  • health numeracy
  • civic numeracy
  • workplace numeracy.

Each of these domains requires somewhat different knowledge bases, dispositions and practices, although some issues cut across multiple domains. Whilst the five domains may be seen as functional, calling for pragmatic responses, they also involve critical elements since they require the ability (and inclination) to raise questions, reflect critically and communicate effectively about thoughts and concerns.

Overall, the paper points to emerging research needs and educational challenges regarding the intersection of numeracy, adult education and vulnerability. These needs and challenges are relevant to scholars, practitioners, and policy makers interested in developing the numeracy of adults as well as the mathematics education of younger learners.

Examples of research-worthy questions include, but are not limited to the following broad topics:

  1. What is the impact of dispositional and affective factors which may have both negative and positive aspects, on participation, retention, persistence and engagement by learners of numeracy?
  2. What are the numeracy practices (both productive and unproductive) of vulnerable groups and how should such practices be considered when planning and implementing instruction?
  3. What teaching and assessment practices can promote the teaching and learning of critical aspects of numeracy, and what is the role of new technologies in this regard?
  4. What content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge are required by teachers in the area of adult numeracy, and what professional development schemes can promote such knowledge?
  5. What curricula or teaching practices can enhance literacy-numeracy linkages, i.e., enable learners to effectively engage with the literacy aspects of numeracy?
  6. Since learning of numeracy and numeracy practices occur in many informal life contexts, to what extent are the skills and dispositions that adults bring from such contexts recognised and capitalised on by teachers, curricula and teaching practices in formal numeracy education programs?

Numeracy knowledge, skills and practices (and related dispositions), in parallel with literacy skills and practices, should be one of the key targets for policy-driven educational interventions that aim to improve the social and economic status, and overall well-being of low-skilled or otherwise vulnerable adults. The roles and purposes of adult numeracy are complex, and are becoming more multifaceted and dynamic in a rapidly changing twenty-first century. Thus, the conceptualization of the numeracy skills and practices that adults need should be continuously monitored and adjusted by policy bodies, researchers and practitioners involved in adult learning and skills, and no less so by those interested in mathematics and statistics education in schools, STEM and vocational contexts.

Read the full report:

Gal, I., Grotlüschen, A., Tout, D. & Kaiser, G. (2020) Numeracy, adult education, and vulnerable adults: a critical view of a neglected field. ZDM Mathematics Education 52, 377–394.