Understanding Numerical Literacy: A Mini-Grant about Big Figures

Greg Kwasnik
Most people know the difference between a millionaire and a billionaire – at least that’s the hope. But how many of us really understand the difference, in concrete terms?
Let’s think of it in terms of time. If each dollar were a second in time and you decided to count to one million, doing so would take 11 days straight. If you decided to count to one billion, it would take 32 years. So...you’d better start counting now.
 
So what’s the point? Being able to truly grasp the scale of the difference between $1 million and $1 billion is a prime example of numerical literacy - an underused skill that’s getting renewed attention in math classes this year thanks to a Holderness Symposium Mini-Grant.
 
The Mini-Grants, made possible by an anonymous grant for teaching and learning, support summer learning for Holderness teachers with the goal of implementing new or transformed curricula in the school’s classrooms. In this case, the Mini-Grant was awarded to Elizabeth Wolf and her fellow Holderness math teachers Pam Mulcahy, Joe Arsenault, and Leigh Anne Connors. For years, these teachers have noticed that their students - while quick to apply the mathematical rules they’ve learned in class – sometimes lack a more holistic understanding of how numbers work.
 
“Our kids have a really good understanding of rules of what you do when you see this specific thing, but have less of a sense of how things work together,” Elizabeth says. “They’ve been sort of pushed through memorizing these rules without understanding the background behind the rules.”
 
In general terms, numerical literacy is a general comfort with and understanding of the numbers we encounter in everyday life: a graph that accompanies a newspaper story about climate change, for example, or the crime statistics cited in a TV news report. A numerically literate person can accurately interpret that graph, understand the context of those statistics, and approach numbers and patterns in the world with confidence. This year, Elizabeth and fellow math teachers have devoted time to teaching these skills through numerous in-class exercises and lessons. At various points throughout the year, they’ve helped students analyze graphs from newspaper stories, taught them to recognize numerical patterns in the world, and – you guessed it – helped them understand the difference between a millionaire and a billionaire. 
 
“It’s getting them comfortable enough with just how numbers work and how things go together that then they can apply it to different things,” Elizabeth says, “as opposed to ‘Oh, here’s this situation. I need to do this,’ and looking more holistically at things.”
 
That kind of intentional focus on numerical literacy likely wouldn’t have been possible without the Holderness Symposium Mini-Grant. The grant gave Elizabeth and her colleagues the time to properly research the topic, read relevant texts like Innumeracy, and meet over dinner to identify problems and strategize for the upcoming school year. “The Mini-Grants are meant to be across disciplines and give people time to talk, which is really nice,” Elizabeth says. “This is something we’ve been talking about in department meetings for years, and the four of us got to get together this summer and actually dive into it.”
 
To date, Elizabeth says, the lessons in numerical literacy are having their intended effect. Students are becoming more comfortable with numbers – an outcome that’s likely to benefit them inside the classroom and beyond. “It’s really easy for kids to say ‘I’m bad at math’ or ‘I hate math,’” Elizabeth says. “Hopefully by engaging in some of this stuff that we’re doing, it allows them to be more comfortable in the classroom using some of the stuff they’re learning.”
 
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Holderness School
33 Chapel Lane, Holderness, NH 03245
mail P.O Box 1879 Plymouth, NH 03264-1879
phone (603) 536-1257