You’ve Heard of Digital Literacy. What about Digital Numeracy?

by Donna Curry

For too many of us in the United States, the definition of literacy is simply the ability to read and write. We supposedly include numeracy in that definition, but it is usually overlooked. Teachers will often say things like, “I’m a literacy specialist” or “I teach literacy.” When we hear those terms, we don’t assume that they are also teaching numeracy. In fact, “literacy” is often a code word meaning, “I don’t touch anything math-related.”

So, just as adult literacy is problematic because it doesn’t explicitly address numeracy, so is the term digital literacy. For some, digital literacy simply means being able to read and write using technology. But digital literacy should focus on so much more. Digital literacy can be defined as “the skills associated with using technology to enable users to find, evaluate, organize, create, and communicate information” (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). Clearly this definition implies more than just reading and writing, but does it include numeracy activities as well?

Finding, evaluating, organizing, creating and communicating information is what doing math is all about. It is not simply practicing computation for the sake of becoming faster and faster without even knowing when, where, or why the computations should be used. Think about the last time you used math. You may have had the information right in front of you, but if not, you had to go find it — maybe do a bit of research on price comparisons. You would have done some evaluation and organizing of those data in order to make an informed decision. And then you might have communicated your decision to your significant other, explaining why you thought Brand X was better than Brand Y. That’s what numeracy is all about, and the use of digital tools is a powerful way to make us all more numerate.

Here’s an example. With the fluctuating interest rates, you may have been considering refinancing your home. Did you do a lot of rote computation using pencil and paper? Possibly. Did you use a calculator? Maybe. But, if you were savvy enough to know that there are amortization tables galore available to you online, you could have made sound decisions without endless drudgery. In fact, using an amortization table allowed you to explore ideas that you would not have thought about otherwise, because it would have been too time-consuming and too tedious.

Making sound decisions is a major reason that we use math. Giving students similar experiences helps them realize that math is so much more than computation, or memorizing procedures for a test. Familiarizing students with digital tools gives them more resources to make life decisions. Give students a task: comparison shopping, deciding whether to lease or buy a car, or whether to rent or own a home, planning a room remodel, or investing money for the future. Then let them do their own research. Ask them to collect, organize, and evaluate what they find and then explain their decision in a class presentation.

Digital literacy is empowering, for us as teachers and for our students. If you’re a tech newbie yourself, you can start small. Invest in learning a couple of online math tools, testing out web conferencing with your students, or familiarizing yourself with some of the numerous Google tools that allow you to create shared, editable class documents. Not sure where to start? Check out the SABES professional development calendar for ideas or contact with questions on digital numeracy.

Donna Curry is an educator, curriculum developer and professional development specialist with over 30 years of experience in adult education. For the past 30 years, she has focused on math standards development at the national level (Equipped for the Future National Standards and Standards-in-Action projects) and at the state level (including states such as Rhode Island, Washington, Oregon, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Ohio). She has also worked on the National Science Foundation’s EMPower project and served as co-director for the NSF Teachers Investigating Adult Numeracy (TIAN) project. She co-developed and implemented the Adult Numeracy Initiative (ANI) project and Adults Reaching Algebra Readiness (AR)2. Donna currently directs the SABES Mathematics and Adult Numeracy Curriculum & Instruction PD Center for Massachusetts and the Adult Numeracy Center at TERC.