Empowerment through mathematics in the workplace
Celia Hoyles shows how demystifying mathematics improves understanding and performance in the workplace
We know that many adult learners have been 'turned off' maths by their previous learning experiences. We also know that work processes in many modern workplaces are underpinned by maths. Thirdly, we know that a powerful motivator for adults to return to and engage with maths is that they can see its relevance to their life and work rather than being just a 'box of tricks' to be performed in a classroom setting.
Motivation and performance
An irony of many modern workplaces is that, while the underlying processes are becoming more mathematically sophisticated, computers are reducing or removing the human input to these processes. As a result, workers have less understanding of what is involved and are less engaged with it. Lack of involvement and engagement leads to less motivation, less work satisfaction and, crucially, lower performance.
The 'Techno-mathematical Literacies in the Workplace' project set out to tackle these issues. We aimed to identify the combinations of mathematical and technological skills that people need in modern workplaces (their 'technomathematical literacies' or TmL) and to develop these by creating flexible interactive resources to support employees in developing the TmL relevant to their work. These could eventually be combined with workplace technical training materials.
We worked with companies in financial services, packaging, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, and the automotive industry. After a period of in-depth study of workplace activities, we designed, in close cooperation with the employers, a number of interactive computerbased 'learning opportunities' that simulate a scenario or process directly relevant to the day-to-day work of the learner employee.
Maths and plastic
For example, we worked with a packaging company to help shiftleaders and operatives on the shopfloor to develop their understanding of a complex plastic extrusion process that converts raw material (resin) into very thin film (15 to 20 microns) to be used in shrinkwrapping. The project team had identified from extensive work in the factory that achieving an understanding of the whole work process and 'what affects what' was crucially important. For the learning opportunity, we co-designed an interactive simulation of the factory process in which the learner could adjust the input speed, the density of the resin, and other control parameters, to achieve a target thickness for the final film (the output). The learner was also presented with scenarios of problems with the process and asked to deal with them. With the simulation, things can be tried, variables tweaked and mistakes made without incurring the significant costs of experimenting with the actual process - and it is fun! Figure 1 shows a screen from this learning opportunity.
Maths and money
In the financial services sector, we worked in areas where employees have to explain the life cycle of products, such as current account mortgages, to the customer. Our research showed that customers' understanding of key variables such as interest rates and administration fees, and their ability to interpret graphs that showed estimates and predictions, was being hindered by employees' use of what were often 'pseudomathematical' labels, eg the 5% attached to an instrument simply designated a type of product, with little or no recognition of what the 5% meant. Accordingly, we worked with the employer to co-design interactive models of current account mortgages, with the emphasis on employees using these models to help them explain the mortgage to customers. Figure 2 shows a slide from this model.
The project has confirmed how learning - particularly learning mathematics - promotes personal and professional development through empowerment, and that practitioners and researchers need to work with employers to co-design interactive tools that take workplace activity as a starting point.
Celia Hoyles is Professor of Mathematics Education at the Institute of Education and Director of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics