David M. Bressoud July, 2008
The publication by the MAA of a new book, Calculation vs. Context: Quantitative Literacy and Its Implications for Teacher Education , leads me to return to Quantitative Literacy (QL), a topic that I touched upon in my column of September, 2005, "Targeting the math-averse." The MAA has published or made available several books on QL. The best starting point for those who want to know what it is and why it is important is still the little volume edited by Lynn Steen, Mathematics and Democracy: The Case for Quantitative Literacy .
This book was followed by a 2001 forum sponsored by the National Council on Education and the Disciplines on Why Numeracy Matters for Schools and Colleges. Papers from that conference were published in Quantitative Literacy . Lynn Steen did the higher education community a great service by summarizing the insights from this conference into the MAA Notes volume Achieving Quantitative Literacy: An Urgent Challenge for Higher Education . Some of the most thought-provoking questions that come out of this book deal with the connection between Mathematics and QL as well as questions of assessment: What does it mean to be quantitatively literate?
In 2004, MAA published a QL textbook, Understanding Our Quantitative World, by Janet Andersen and Todd Swanson . And, in 2006, it published a Notes volume, Current Practices in Quantitative Literacy , edited by Rick Gillman, that describes general principles of a college program in QL as well as many different programs at many different types of institutions.
The latest volume, Calculation vs. Context, is a collection of papers that came out of a 2007 conference at Wingspread, the Johnson Foundation Conference Center in Racine, Wisconsin, on the issue of what kind of training in QL should be given to prospective K-12 teachers. After an introduction by Bernard Madison, Lynn Steen gives an overview of the threads that emerge in these papers. One is the debate whether QL should be subdisciplinary, part of the charge to—perhaps even part of the reason for—the teaching of mathematics, or whether it should be cross-disciplinary. The strongest argument for QL as subdisciplinary can be found in the article by Hugh Burckhardt.
I myself am firmly in the camp that sees QL as necessarily cross-disciplinary. The mathematical community can contribute to understanding QL, and it has a responsibility to take a leadership role in promoting it, but if mathematics becomes the sole keeper of QL, then there is a real danger that quantitative literacy will become entangled with mathematical literacy or, worse, reduced to formulaic approaches to fixed categories of problems, exactly the opposite of what QL should be.
The thread that most interests me is the theme of QL as a form of communication. This is illustrated best in Neil Lutsky's description of the program at Carleton College that promotes and assesses student ability to draw on quantitative information to inform and argue a thesis, regardless of the discipline in which it occurs. This theme is picked up in Milo Schield's description of student difficulties in unpacking and interpreting statements couched in the language of percentages, in Alan Tucker's explanation of why students struggle to understand fractions and what can be done to improve their understanding, and in Joel Best's argument that there is too little appreciation for the social context within which data is collected and thus the need for critical evaluation of numeric evidence.
QL as a form of communication is a useful image. In a phrase used in several of the definitions of QL, it is a "habit of mind" rather than an arsenal of technique. As Robert Orrill's article points out, this image also illuminates the difficulties of spreading QL because we live in a society that is very ambivalent about communicating through quantitative information. To too many, it appears opaque and rather suspect. That is the difficulty, but that is also why it is so essential to promote QL.
A few years ago, I ran a workshop for secondary social studies teachers that was billed as a workshop on immigration issues. The title carried an underplayed subhead, "Understanding the Numbers." When the teachers arrived, they were concerned to learn that we really would be looking at data that could help to illuminate and inform the policy debates that surround immigration issues. But by the end of the week, they discovered that accessing and analyzing this quantitative information was not as daunting as they had feared. They discovered many ways they could help their own students overcome fear of and begin to learn to work with numeric information that was relevant to local and national issues that they cared about.
This should be our goal, to spread awareness of how effective QL can be as a form of communication, as a means of reaching deeper understanding of our world and the complex choices we face. We need to reach all K-12 teachers. We need to make QL part of the college curriculum. We have allies. Many of those now pressing hardest for QL are in the social sciences. I am proud to be on the Board of Directors of the National Numeracy Network , an interdisciplinary organization the promotes QL, and I encourage all mathematicians to think about what QL means for them and for their institutions.
 Bernard L. Madison and Lynn Arthur Steen, editors, Calculation vs. Context: Quantitative Literacy and Its Implications for Teacher Education, Mathematical Association of America, Washington, DC, 2008.
 Lynn Arthur Steen, editor, Mathematics and Democracy: The Case for Quantitative Literacy, National Council on Education and the Disciplines, Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, 2001. (available from the MAA)
 Bernard L. Madison and Lynn Arthur Steen, editors, Quantitative Literacy: Why Numeracy Matters for Schools and Colleges, Mathematical Association of America, Washington, DC, 2003.
 Lynn Arthur Steen, Achieving Quantitative Literacy: An Urgent Challenge for Higher Education, MAA Notes #62, Mathematical Association of America, Washington, DC, 2004.
 Janet Andersen and Todd Swanson, Understanding Our Quantitative World, Mathematical Association of America, Washington, DC, 2004.
 Rick Gillman, editor, Current Practices in Quantitative Literacy, MAA Notes #70, Mathematical Association of America, Washington, DC, 2006.
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David Bressoud is DeWitt Wallace Professor of Mathematics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and president-elect of the MAA. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column does not reflect an official position of the MAA.