Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

Quantitative Literacy

MAA’s Quantitative Literacy in Higher Education presents QL as the “third ‘R’” for 21st century education. It picks up on the argument presented in a related report, Mathematics and Democracy–the Case for Quantitative Literacy, from the National Council on Education and the Disciplines. Linking mathematics and democracy through creative and intentional QL opportunities across the curriculum is seen as an essential responsibility for faculty working together across the curriculum.

As faculty from different disciplines come to appreciate the subtleties of QL, and as they see it used in a variety of contexts, they will increasingly appreciate its power as a college-level literacy.

Embedding QL across the Curriculum

Quantitative literacy cannot be taught by mathematics teachers alone, not because of deficiencies in teaching but because quantitative material must be pervasive in all areas of students’ education. Quantitative literacy is not simply a matter of knowing how to do the mathematics, but also requires the ability to wed mathematics to context. This ability is learned from seeing and using mathematics regularly in contexts outside the mathematics classroom: in daily life, in chemistry class, in the business world. Thus, quantitative literacy cannot be regarded as the sole responsibility of ...mathematics teachers.

A persuasive argument can be made that the skills component of quantitative literacy is essentially precollege in nature. What, this argument goes, beyond the topics of precollege education (graphs, algebra, geometry, logic, probability, and statistics) is foundational to quantitative literacy for everyday life? Looking at the curriculum as a list of topics, however, misses an important point: quantitative literacy is not something that one either knows or does not know. It is hard to argue that precollege education in writing fails to cover the basics of grammar, composition, and voice, for example. Yet it is widely accepted that writing is a skill that improves with practice in a wide variety of settings at the college level.

Quantitative literacy at the college level also requies an across-the-curriculum approach, providing a wide vareity of opportunities for practice. The challenges to incorporating quantitative literacy across the curriculum are many, including “math anxiety” on the part of both faculty and students, lack of administrative understanding and support, and competing pressures for various other literacy requirements. Nonetheless, the ability to adapt mathematical ideas to new contexts is a key component of quantitative literacy. The everyday life component of quantitative literacy argues forcefully for engagement of faculty across the curriculum. Quantitative literacy thus must be the responsibility of teachers in all disciplines, and cannot be isolated in mathematics departments.

– Randall M. Richardson [geologist] & William G. McCallum [mathematician]– University of Arizona

Informing efforts to enhance students’ quantitative literacy is the National Numeracy Network. http://www.math.dartmouth.edu/~nnn/NNNVisionMission.html