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The importance of understanding adult numeracy levels

24 Sep 2019

by Andreas Schleicher of the OECD

National Numeracy research earlier this year found that 1 in 4 people in the UK have been put off applying for a job because it involved numbers and data. In what ways does good numeracy open doors for us?

Andreas Schleicher

In a science and data-dominated world, economic and social participation depend increasingly on the capacity of people to access, use, interpret and communicate numbers, data and mathematical ideas. People need to be able read, decode and interpret statements, questions, tasks or objects that involve numbers or other forms of data. They need to be able to navigate between the real world and the mathematical world, for example, formulate a problem as a mathematical problem so they can solve it, or interpret the results of a mathematical problem in the real world. They need to be able to understand and represent ideas through graphs, tables, diagrams, pictures, equations or formulae. They need to reason mathematically, which involves thought processes rooted in logic that explore and link problem elements so as to be able to make inferences from them, check a justification that is given, or provide a justification of statements or solutions to problems. Importantly, numeracy isn’t just about technical or scientific careers, to one degree or another, mathematical concepts and processes are now intrinsic to many jobs and daily tasks: from buying and selling goods and services to explaining highly complex phenomena.

Numeracy isn’t just about technical or scientific careers.

Our Survey of Adult Skills shows that adults with higher proficiency in numeracy tend to have better outcomes in the labour market. They have greater chances of being employed and, if employed, of earning higher wages. This holds true also when accounting for other factors commonly associated with better outcomes in the labour market, such as educational attainment, work experience, occupation and field of study. 

But when people are put off by numeracy requirements, this isn’t necessarily reflecting poor numeracy skills; attitudes towards numbers and data are often framed by boring math lessons in their schooling, where math wasn’t taught as a fascinating language to understand, describe and predict the world around us, but as an abstract world of formulas and equations. 

Aside from careers and education, what ways does good numeracy enhance the other areas of our life and general wellbeing?

Proficiency in numeracy is positively associated with many aspects of individual well-being. In most countries who took part in the Survey of Adult Skills, adults who scored at lower levels of numeracy proficiency were more likely than those who scored at high levels to have reported poor health, that they have little impact on the political process, and that they do not participate in associative or volunteer activities. Individuals with lower proficiency were also more likely than those with higher proficiency to have reported less trust in others. These relationships hold even after accounting for educational attainment and other socio-demographic characteristics, such as age, gender and family background. 

It is hard to improve what you cannot measure.

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Why do you think it’s useful to build a sense of understanding about adult numeracy levels, both at a national and international level?

It is hard to improve what you cannot measure, and making the numeracy skills of adults visible is a first step towards developing better numeracy skills. Too often, we attribute numeracy skills to talent rather than effort, which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Think about it: In the 2012 PISA mathematics assessment, the 10% most disadvantaged 15-year-olds in Shanghai performed as well as the 10% wealthiest American students. This shows us what is possible.

Over a quarter of a million people adults in the UK have signed up to use the National Numeracy Challenge, do you think it a good idea for individuals to give ourselves a numeracy skills audit?

Yes, that’s a great outcome, it shows that people see the relevance of numeracy skills and want to know where they stand.

Find out more about adult numeracy levels

Andreas Schleicher is Director for Education and Skills, and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris.

Start improving your numeracy – register on the National Numeracy Challenge now!

National Numeracy has developed an online tool to help you improve your numeracy and boost your confidence. This interactive website is free to use at home, at work or on the move. You can assess your current level of numeracy – completely anonymously – and then begin an online journey to getting the Essentials of Numeracy.