What is numerical communication?

Numeracy is sidelined in many traditional learning processes, and when it is introduced it is usually in the abstract, reduced to basic arithmetic. However, in a Reflect process, numeracy is understood more broadly: it is about solving problems, analysing issues and expressing information clearly and concisely, and it is usually a mixture of written, oral and mental methods. The idea of graphic construction and visual representation, so central to Reflect, is intrinsically mathematical. In fact many of the graphics, such as matrices, pie charts, bar charts and calendars use mathematics explicitly for analysis.

Why numerical communication?

Mathematics is crucially important in strengthening people’s capacity to communicate and has a critical role to play in challenging power inequities. Numbers affect everyone. The most obvious and powerful use of numbers is in relation to money, which affects every individual both directly (for instance, in relation to the price that we secure for our labour or produce, or the price of basic goods and services we rely on) and indirectly (for example, through budgetary decision making at international, national and local levels). Moreover, numbers, in the form of statistics used by different agencies for planning, also have a huge, but often unrecognised, influence on people’s lives.

Focus of numerical communication

Work around numerical communication in Reflect includes a critical reading of existing ‘texts’ and the active construction of alternatives. The focus is on highlighting and strengthening the mathematical skills that participants already have, and challenging traditional understandings of mathematics.

Key principles

The starting point for numerical communication must be to demystify mathematics and analyse the links between the uses of numeracy and the practice of power.

Maths in context: Numeracy must only be introduced in context. It should not be taught mechanically, but focus on real use. Work with numbers should only take place if it is relevant to the particular topic being discussed. Calculations should be used to solve real problems and contribute to a process of analysis.

Previous knowledge: Participants should be supported in discovering, using and strengthening the mathematical skills that they already possess. This implies working with oral and mental mathematical processes. Problems encountered by adults joining a learning process are often due to formal written processes clashing with the mental way of calculating. Conversely, using participants’ prior skills helps to build confidence as participants recognise their own power and knowledge, while simultaneously enhancing their skills and understanding.

Written mathematics: This does not mean that mathematics should never be written down, it is crucially important for participants to be able to read and write numbers. But it is important to analyse and challenge the power of written mathematics. It is only through taking part in this analysis that participants will be able to make informed decisions about what mathematical knowledge they need. When written down, mental processes look cumbersome. However, if participants have a record of their workings, and can see the complexity of what they are doing, it is likely to increase their self-confidence. Moreover, the written process can be used to show how the same mathematical processes are employed in different contexts – this is crucial if people are to use mathematics to expand their opportunities (see ‘Oral mathematics’ or ‘Using drama’)

Calculators: Where appropriate, Reflect practitioners are encouraged to use calculators. This can be used to simplify the mathematical process, so that participants can focus on the underlying issues at hand. They are also useful to check mental calculations, and illustrate how the same process can be used in different situations.

Micro-macro links: A common problem with participatory tools is that they can lock people into a local, micro-level analysis, isolated from the wider context and missing the links between the local, national and international situations. It is important to enable people to place their reality in a wider context.

External information: Further information is often necessary to make the micro-macro links. This gives rise to two issues: Firstly, who decides when it is appropriate to introduce external documents and how can this be done without corrupting a process which is controlled by the learners themselves? Secondly, how and where is this information best accessed? There are no simple answers to either of these points, though it is suggested that participants take part in these discussions. To ease problems of access, the implementing organisation will need to play a role in linking with other organisations, libraries and Internet centres. They may also play a role in presenting the information in a user-friendly format. It can be difficult to work directly with externally produced texts if there has been no prior work on the participants’ mathematical skills. If participants have had any exposure to the type of mathematics taught in school it is likely that they will have certain expectations about maths. It will be important to ‘unlearn’ this, challenging the power of the western models of calculations so that participants will be able to appreciate their own abilities and build on these.

Although work with numeracy will have different aims and focuses at different times, one way to sequence the work might be:

Participants develop a graphic as part of existing analysis, using numeracy, either in the construction or analysis;

An external text with a numeracy element on the same theme is critically read;

Participants place their previous local analysis in this wider context;

Participants identify ways in which numerical communication may contribute to wider action to advance their interests.

Further reading

Download the article 'We count too' by Kate Newman, 2001.