Ideas from Down Under: Number Literacy for Future Elementary School Teachers

For the past three weeks, I've been in Australia studying how two universities prepare future elementary school teachers. I've approached this by following teacher education students from class to class, trying to see the process of learning to teach from their eyes.

Some of it feels familiar to me. The students are ferociously busy, with five and six classes and assignments they're juggling at once. They travel from lectures to group planning sessions to part-time jobs. Sometimes they think and talk as teachers; other times, they are in student mode, and passing assignments feels more important than adding to their teaching repertoire. Among teacher candidates at the University of Michigan, I see many of the same pressures and dispositions.

But sometimes, I come upon parts of their experience that are totally foreign, that I've seen neither hide nor tail of in the U.S.

Last Monday, I sat in on a class at the University of Tasmania called Personal and Professional Numeracy. A half hour into class, Professor Robyn Reaburn turned to her next lecture slide and posed a question. "What percent of Australia's gross national income goes to foreign aid?"

There was a moment of hesitation. No one knew. I had no idea either. It was the type of number-savvy question that had embarrassed me many times before. I've always struggled with conceiving of large numbers; billions and trillions could be the same to me.

Then again, as the one non-Australian in the room, there was no shame in being wrong. "5%," I piped up. Robyn wrote my guess on the board. Others took stabs at it, guessing seven and ten percent.

She then turned to a Charlie Pickering clip - a comedian in the style of John Oliver and Stephen Colbert - to explain that the average Australian thinks foreign aid is 16% of the national income, and eight of ten Australians want to reduce foreign aid. But the actual percentage of gross national income Australia gives in foreign aid? 0.22%.

If we were more number literate, Robyn accentuated, then maybe we would pressure our government to make different decisions.

There were murmurs of assent from the assembled students.

I looked back down at my notebook. My first thought was how would number literacy help these future teachers? Would a teacher with more understanding of numbers and their use help a seven-year old learn more math?

Then I thought again. In Teaching and Its Predicaments, noted historian of education David Cohen writes that teachers are fundamentally dependent on their students; without their commitment, lofty learning goals will remain unattainable.

Convincing students that a subject matter is an important part of a teacher's job, and seeing the importance of numbers may aid this work. It is much easier to carve out time for math if one believes that number literacy is critical to creating an informed for democracy.

The development of critical numeracy skills is central to the course. At one point in the class, we read a bit from the The Tiger That Isn't, the course's primary text. Described by The Guardian as a book that will "delight and empower everyone whether fascinated or scared by the bewildering world of numbers", the book exposes the use and misuse of statistics in politics and the media. In one of the course's two assignments, students choose a news article, research the quantitative evidence presented in the piece, and decide whether the evidence supports the author's conclusions.

If this was the students' only math course, I would be skeptical of its ability to prepare them for the rigors of teaching place value, operations, and fractions to their future students. But these future teachers were only in their first of nearly four full years of course work, with two more semesters of math content to go. Considering that elementary school teachers with little background in math can be anxious about teaching it, one semester spent on the role of numbers in our lives may be well worth the time. Scholars write plenty about the importance of teachers' mathematical content knowledge; I've seen much less about teachers' views on the importance of math in their students' lives.

At the end of class, Robyn posed a series of questions. Could all the people in the world fit in to Tasmania? If all of the people in Tasmania stood on top of each other, could they reach the moon? The necessary formulas sat on the white board; the sense-making was left our small groups.

We sat stupefied by the breadth of the task at first. But like mathematicians approaching a long-sought after proof, we dug in bit by bit. We debated, hypothesized, argued, and used evidence, just as students might do in a well-run classroom.

I came away impressed with the course. In this age of information, perhaps the idea of a personal numeracy course for elementary school teachers is one that should travel a bit farther.