Employability, numeracy and maths: is it all just words?
Noyona Chanda argues that instead of worrying about what mathematics and numeracy are, teachers should focus on how learners can gain practical numeracy skills through real-life examples
In the current economic climate, it is worth remembering that the recession was caused, at least in part, by the actions of the most numerate, mathematically-able and highly-employable members of the workforce. This said, the belief is widely-held that having numeracy and problem-solving skills improves individuals' efficiency in the workplace, and may help to improve job and promotion prospects. As part of the Maths4Life project, LLU+* invited a group of (employed) adult learners to reflect on the subject of numeracy and employability. Their views were gathered onto a poster.
Developing practical skills
From the learners' point of view, there may be little significant difference between the terms 'numeracy', 'application of number', 'functional maths' and 'functional numeracy'. Most adults would agree that being numerate helps people to function in work, daily life and society, but it is unlikely that they distinguish between being 'numerate' and being 'functionally mathematical', however much a mathematical qualification may be privileged over a numeracy qualification, either by the value system attached to academic qualifications or by employers.
We need to focus instead on ensuring that whatever provision an individual engages with, whether employability or numeracy skills development, learners develop practical skills that can be used independently and effectively to function in work and life contexts. It is the quality of teaching and learning opportunity that will, in the end, determine the extent to which an individual is able to use the mathematical skills they acquire.
Enabling learners to gain practical skills should be the goal of all numeracy and maths teachers in the post-school sector. This goal encompasses the development of mathematical knowledge, skills and conceptual understanding at both a utilitarian as well as an abstract level, allowing the individual to develop and use mathematical tools and problemsolving processes in real-life contexts, including the creative exploration of mathematical concepts.
The role of teachers
Implementing this goal is not so difficult. The solution lies in ensuring that all teachers in the sector work towards:
- helping learners to acquire either the skills they need to gain entry into employment or to enhance their readiness for improved employment, and;
- engaging learners in active learning, through discovery, extension, and enrichment.
The techniques teachers use to achieve this should be informed by what is known about how learners learn and not by the kind of provision learners are in or the related funding stream or initiative.
All learners of numeracy, not just those in functional maths provision, are entitled to support that will enable them to function effectively in life and work. But numeracy learners are also entitled to engage with the beauty of maths and enjoy the exploration of mathematical ideas. No matter what level a group of learners is working at, there is scope for using what they already know and can do to enhance problem-solving and reasoning skills, and to apply these to creative and investigative tasks (work-related or otherwise) to develop confident, independent usage of mathematical skills and knowledge. The skills, knowledge and creativity of the teacher can make this happen.
Regarding employability, teachers and trainers need to focus as much on maths usage in work and life situations as on computation skills or abstract problem-solving. This awareness and understanding of maths in use is not something that can be picked up through formal CPD* alone: it requires the teacher actively noticing the maths around them, and reflecting on the ways in which maths in used in everyday situations. This knowledge can then be used to:
- provide relevant situations for problem-solving practice
- motivate learners to engage with numeracy
- prepare learners for assessments relevant to gaining employment and promotion.
Although many teachers have had jobs other than teaching or training, they often
do not draw upon these experiences when trying to establish for learners the relevance
of maths to workplace contexts. At LLU+, we addressed this issue in a recent series
of CPD events, under the auspices of the Skills for Life Improvement Programme,
focusing on numeracy and employability. Participants were asked to reflect on
their nonteaching work experiences and to analyse the tasks and ways in which
they used maths skills, knowledge and reasoning in their jobs. These scenarios
were used to motivate learners and establish the relevance of particular skills.
At each event participants were surprised and interested to learn how different
maths skills and knowledge had been used in work contexts.
Groups came up with their top 10 numeracy skills for employability. These 'skills'
were expressed as broad areas to avoid any association with assessment target
areas and allow the inclusion of particular industry specialisms. All lists included
- Time and its management
- Finance and its management
- Interpretation of data (analysis and decision-making)
- Communicating numerically
- Computer use for numerical data handling
- Application of mathematics in specific occupational areas
Numeracy is an essential attribute for and in employment. No matter what other knowledge, skills and understanding an individual brings to the workplace, an 'at-homeness' with numbers will enhance not only the individual's life chances, but also contribute to the good of communities and the economy.
Noyona Chanda is Director of LLU+ at London South Bank University LLU+ has recently developed a CPD module on numeracy for and in employment. For more information, contact Graham Griffiths firstname.lastname@example.org
What is 'employability'?
UKCES* define employability skills to be the skills 'almost everyone needs to do almost any job'.(1) They are the skills that must be present to enable an individual to use the more specific knowledge and technical skills that their particular workplaces will require.
Employability skills build up in three layers, starting with a foundation of Positive Approach, within which they include: being ready to participate; making suggestions; accepting new ideas and constructive criticism; and taking responsibility for outcomes. This crucial base supports the three Functional Skills of using numbers, language and IT* effectively. In turn these Functional Skills are utilised in the context of four Personal Skills:
- thinking and solving problems
- working together and communicating
- understanding the business
See the diagram for an illustration of the above relationship.
What is numeracy?
According to the Cockcroft Report,(2) numeracy is the possession of two attributes:
- 1) an 'at-homeness' with numbers and an ability to make use of mathematical skills
which enables the individual to cope with the practical mathematical demands of
everyday life; and
- 2) an ability to have some appreciation and understanding of information which is presented in mathematical terms, for instance in graphs, charts or tables, or by reference to percentage increase or decrease.
The Moser Report(3) defines numeracy more simply as the ability 'to use mathematics at a level necessary to function at work and in society in general.'
(1) UKCES (2009) The Employability Challenge. London: UKCES.
(2) Cockcroft, W.H. (1982) Mathematics Counts. London: HMSO.
(3) DfEE (1999) A fresh start: Improving literacy and numeracy. The report of the working group chaired by Sir Claus Moser. London: Department for Education and Employment.
* See Glossary