## BOOK REVIEW: Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers

#### Authors: Chip Heath and Karla Starr

Book review by Melissa Braaten

According to COABE’s Educate and Elevate campaign, the U.S. has about 75 million adults considered “low-skilled” in numeracy. 75 million is a large number. But how large? How are we supposed to feel about this statistic? How can we wrap our minds around what it means for our own state, city, or program? We might consider that 75 million is almost twice the population of California. We might consider that 75 million is more than a quarter of the entire adult population of the U.S. We might consider that 75 million is about twice the number of adult Americans who have diabetes.

This was my attempt to produce a “translation,” a way of taking a number or statistic and communicating it in a way to make it more intuitive, understandable, and emotionally relevant to its audience. A new book by bestselling authors Chip Heath and Karla Starr called Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers is all about various strategies for producing these translations. The book is written for the public: the authors specifically point out that this is a book for people who consider themselves “number people” and for people who don’t. After all, they argue, we all share brains that work in similar ways when it comes to numbers. Although some people might feel more comfortable working with numbers in their abstract, symbolic form, we all understand numbers most intuitively through the concrete experiences we can relate to, and through contexts we are already familiar with. By leveraging the types of numbers and measurements we already see, touch, and live out every day, we can bring important insights about numbers outside our daily experience into focus.

This explanation appealed to me, as it felt very much in tune with our philosophy of math education at the SABES Mathematics and Adult Numeracy Curriculum & Instruction PD Center. In our curriculum design and professional development, we emphasize conceptual understanding of mathematical topics, which begins with concrete experiences that students can see or touch, then creating representational ways of understanding the concept, before finally landing at a purely symbolic form.

As a content teacher (science and social studies), this book gave me a lot to think about as well. I love to include data in my content classes. After reading through the translation examples in the book, I realized I could make the data numbers much more meaningful and memorable for my students if I took some time to plan how I was going to communicate those numbers. I am always looking for ways to teach that work with our brains instead of against them!

### Creating Number Translations

In other words, “It’s rude to make people feel they’re being excluded from the conversation.” Heath and Starr begin a chapter with this Japanese quote without providing a translation to make the point that no one likes being presented with things they don’t understand. In the same way, “Numbers are only fun if they make sense to everyone” (p. 5).

The authors start with some basics. Round your numbers to make them user friendly (6 million is better than 5.78 million), offer comparisons to amounts that are more familiar (Ireland is half the size of New York State), and consider scaling ratios up or down so they are at a scale that is easy to understand (for example, the US debt of \$27 trillion dollars equates to \$82,000 per citizen). Anything that brings numbers into the realm of the concrete, or resizes them to a human scale, will help them be more understandable and memorable.

Sometimes you can communicate your point without using numbers at all. The book offers an example of data from a test study of racial discrimination in hiring that showed that among equally qualified applicants,

#### 34% of white applicants and 14% of black applicants without criminal records got callbacks, compared to 17% and 5% with records.

Their translation of those numbers eliminates the percentages altogether to make an impactful comparison: