Why is it okay to be bad at math?

“I’m bad at math.” It’s something we hear all the time. Often, it’s greeted with knowing smiles and laughs. However, “I’m bad at reading” does not meet such a warm reception. Why is it that we treat literacy as a vital skill that can be worked on while we treat numeracy as a quaint talent that is innate?

History of Writing Numbers

Although the origins of speech and counting remain relatively unknown, writing of both letters and numbers emerged around the 4th millennium BCE. In ancient Sumer around 3100 BCE, there were dozens of local, incompatible number systems for counting specific things–objects, grain, weights, etc.

For the most part, written language and written numbers were largely the province of large ancient institutions–temples, palaces, etc.–which handled things like long-distance trade, taxation, and sacred offerings. The average peasant, largely self-sufficient and rarely interacting with markets, had little need for writing, linguistic or numerical.

It wasn’t until the dawn of capitalism that numeracy became a requirement for the average person. Prior to capitalism, the average person had little interaction with markets. Peasants made the food they ate, the clothes they wore, and anything else that they needed for their daily lives. The idea of having a job that provided an income that you would then have to budget was completely anathema to most people prior to capitalism.

With capitalism came specialization. Individuals did a particular job for an income that they could spend on the products of the labor of others. Increasingly, individuals made little of what they used in the home, opting to buy instead. This requires not only addition and subtraction to account for individual transactions, but also multiplication and division to calculate income and expenditure over the long run.

The Mathematics of Daily Life

Dr. Leah Saal and her research team at Loyola University, Maryland have been studying the impact of numeracy skills on employability. In a paper presented at the 2018 Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies research conference, Saal and her team demonstrated that numeracy skills were predictive of having no experience with paid work or being long-term unemployed. They also found that these effects were amplified for marginalized groups such as women, older adults, and racial or ethnic minorities.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, nearly one-third of adults in the U.S. have weak numeracy skills. To combat this, Saal and her team recommend a number of policies aimed at improving adult education. Among these recommendations are adding numeracy programming to workforce development curricula and making “low levels of numeracy” an identified employment barrier under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act the way that “low levels of literacy” is.

Numeracy Skills Start Young

While it’s good to acquire numeracy skills at any age, starting early saves on catch up time and lost employability. A 2010 study showed that early numeracy demonstrated in kindergarten predicts performance in first-grade math. Another study found similar results in home and preschool numeracy development’s effect on 3rd-grade performance. Yet another found that preschool numeracy has positive impacts throughout primary school. The research tells us that developing literacy early is paramount to lifetime success.

Given that nearly one-third of adults in the US lack numeracy skills, it’s apparent that the school system alone is insufficient for ensuring numeracy. JEI’s Math program, as well as our more advanced Problem Solving Math enrichment program, can set your child up for a future of numeracy and all the benefits that come with it.

To get your child started, find a JEI Learning Center near you!