Numeracy Tests…. why?

Recently a colleague of mine came into our staff-room seeming quite stressed. When I asked her about it she told me she was facing an upcoming numeracy test and was quite worried about it. In the UK system, to achieve your fully qualified teacher status all teachers have to complete a numeracy test containing mathematical problems of varying complexity, but which the teacher is expected to be able to pass.

My colleague is an English teacher –  and from what I have observed, a pretty good one too. Recently we had the opportunity to engage in some team teaching and I was genuinely impressed by how she handled herself. Excellent subject knowledge and  use of pedagogical approaches to teaching the content, good differentiation for the students who needed it and moreover she established a good rapport with them quickly, being both respectful but firm. She had the class on task and learning far more quickly than I feel I usually do. She has passed all her observed lessons thus far and is looking to be well and truly on track to qualifying with flying colours.

Yet if my colleague doesn’t pass her numeracy test, she will not be allowed to achieve her qualified status for another 24 months. During that 24 months she will still work as a teacher – she will be expected to still take a full time load –  but wont be paid as one. She will suffer 24 months of financial penalty.

An English teacher, because she was rubbish at maths.

An English teacher.

I completed my Australian HSC in 1993 and at that time, Maths was not a compulsory subject for the certificate. Throughout my high schooling I struggled mightily with mathematics. My results were so consistently low that my parents decided I really needed additional help and hired me a tutor. For almost a year I trudged off to my tutors’ house twice a week to undergo an agonizing hour of number crunching. The word ‘agonizing’ is only slightly hyperbole here; I have never been good at mathematics and I’m still not, I suffer anxiety when I do it and feel frustrated that it takes me so much longer than everyone else. If you imagine the brain as a mouse running on a wheel then when my brain encounters Mathematics the mouse quits the wheel in a huff and parks itself on the ground and eats cheese.

It’s never been officially diagnosed, but I suspect I have an issue with sequences of numbers. After education training, I even began to suspect that I might have some form of dyslexia (something that runs in my family). In my final year of high school, I decided enough was enough and ditched the subject all together. In my next set of exams, without fail: all my results had shot up by a dozen or more marks. My favourite subject –  now the subject of my free time and my vocation –  History, shot up from the 70’s and 80’s ,well up to the high 90’s.. Mathematics took up so much of my time, and required such a cognitive load for me to even achieve a low pass mark that removing it suddenly made me almost a top tier student.

Now, I have a degree in History and a Masters in teaching with distinction. All of my educational practicum reports during teacher training were excellent and I have received nothing but praise for my work thus far in my teaching career. And I feel something of a little bit of pride (feel free to call it hubris if you will) that you would be hard pressed to find someone who is more passionate about their chosen subject  – History – and who immerses themselves in it as much as I do. You would be hard pressed to find someone who finds the idea of teaching this subject to be an absolutely thrilling proposition.

Ask me to list off Roman Emperors and historical theories for the collapse of the empire, ask me to talk about British Empire trading policies, ask me to consider the crusades and their ramifications, ask me to sequence the ebb and flow of events in world war 2…ask me how to present this in a way that is engaging and challenging and I’m your guy.

Ask me how much time a train takes when it travels to A at XYZ kph which is B distance away and the mouse gets off the wheel, and i reach for a calculator.

There is a big push in certain western educational systems on literacy and numeracy, here in the UK it’s embedded in the system and is a favored talking point for politicians on both sides of the house when addressing perceived deficiencies in student outcomes. In my native Australia, a similar focus is being pushed. We hear a lot of talk about it being essential that teachers be skilled in the ‘basics’, one of these basics being numeracy, or  –  ‘basic mathematical ability’. On the surface, this seems to be a fairly obvious truism: How can we expect students to succeed if their teachers lack essential mathematical skills? Yet this is a surface argument and like many such arguments, often made for political or budgetary expediency, its seeming obviousness hides fundamentally flawed assumptions and relevant misunderstandings.

Lets address one thing first: You will be hard pressed to find many good reasons why a teacher should not have good literacy skills. In the K-12 system, every subject, even those with a technical focus require writing skills and these skills must stand up to accepted academic standards. “You cant be an English teacher and be rubbish at reading and writing” said my colleague, “It just doesn’t make sense to even consider that”.

And she is right. Moreover, this applies to every subject that requires engagement with or production of any  sort of text. Literacy makes sense.

But why Numeracy? Is it really essential that every teacher be mathematically grounded?

How do mathematically challenged people cope in the real world? Easy –  this is the 21st century, we are never far from a pen and paper, a calculator, or a mobile phone. Short of a mass catastrophe that wipes out all technology and power I cannot foresee a time when this wont be the case. There are disciplines where numeracy is essential and advantageous. But there are others where this is mostly superfluous and penalizing an English teacher, a History teacher, A foreign languages teacher,  or any other subject that has only a dubious usage for numeracy is the same as penalizing a Maths teacher because they haven’t mastered the basics of Art, History or French.

There are assumptions we can safely make about people who graduate as teachers in a lot of cases. Presumably (if their universities had academic integrity) they posses a decent knowledge of their chosen subject and the key disciplines that surround it. They can probably write, have a more or less above average level of literacy and probably at least basic numeracy as well. More importantly, they have learned diligence, how to study, research and adapt, all key skills essential for a person in the teaching profession.

However what is  critically important as I see it is specialization or expertise in a subject. Graduates and post graduates have this and those who go in to teaching mix their subject specialization with an added specialization in pedagogy. If I want a student taught about Shakespeare I want someone who can teach and who knows Shakespeare. If I want someone taught to speak German I want someone who knows how to teach and to speak German –  their ability to add is irrelevant to me and so it should be, that isn’t their specialty.

Consider also that a persons’ numeracy skills could be amazing, but that does not mean they will be a decent teacher – Teaching is a discipline in itself which many people simply cant do. We should be looking to get teachers who are passionate about teaching, and equally passionate and knowledgeable about their chosen subjects, not making them dance through barely relevant hoops so boxes can be ticked and political points scored. Numeracy testing and odious financial penalties for teachers  who fail them  is bureaucratic and unnecessary and could be costing our education systems extremely good people, the kind of people we need. Is it really that hard to assess individual teachers based on their strengths and the needs of their subjects? Our teachers, like our students are individuals,  are we so inflexible and red-tape bound that we insist all teachers have to tick all boxes before they are allowed to do the job that they may already be doing and doing well?

Understand –  In the UK, If you fail your numeracy test, you will still be teaching. You can still be in front of a classroom every day, just for two years you will have to suffer a pay cut before you can do it again. Obviously numeracy is crucial, just not in the way we’re told. We’re happy to have you teaching, but it does allow us to skimp on paying you for the work you do.

Numeracy indeed.

But as often happens, the people schools are really focused on –  students –  put this to me the other day far better than I could. A student asked me the other day to tell her what percentage her mark was from another class. I immediately whipped out my phone and began to work it out. Feeling self conscious I explained, ‘Sorry, I’m not great with numbers, it’ll be faster if I use my phone’. The student gave me a funny look and said ‘ whatever Sir, you’re a History teacher’.

That made my week.


~ by benephobia on March 14, 2013.

2 Responses to “Numeracy Tests…. why?”

  1. You raise some interesting arguments, Benephobia. Obviously a Devil’s Advocate could say it is all about setting a “basic” or “right” level for Literacy and Numeracy for teachers, and I can concede that to some extent. However, I am with you, that knowledge does not equal teaching capability, and there is no substitute for passion, particularly when couple with knowledge and good pedagogy. As someone with a PhD who did not do maths for the Higher School Certificate, and who loves history, as you do, I think you do open points that are worthy of debate. But I suspect when literacy became divorced from content instruction the whole literacy numeracy battle was already lost to some extent (after all, it shows a lack of understanding of what these capabilities are… you must be literate or numerate about something). There are great historians who are very numerate, such as those from the Annales School of historiography. So there need not be any either/or here. But in the end, it is the divorcing of literacy and numeracy from their functions in specific disciplines, and everyday activities, that makes all this testing pointless. I’d say check out the Cognitive Apprenticeship model… it arose out of a desire to get away from overly abstract notions of literacy and numeracy that seem to fuel contemporary testing regimes, placing such activities in the actual contexts of their use. But, I don’t hold much hope for resisting the current stupidity… but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Keep up the posts.

  2. Thanks Rob! I will check that out – and I hope you are enjoying your holiday! The saga of my colleague dipped into further insanity by the way – sheer silliness. I agree with you that the current trends probably won’t change anytime soon, not when literacy and numeracy results as shown in PISA reports are used by politicians to show that they are ‘getting the job done’.

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