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Innumeracy and Integrating Math across the Curriculum

By Lindsay Reeves, CEI Intern, and Christine Mason

Math in its basic form, even with newer standards and efforts, is still thought of as being an independent discipline.  The need to integrate it across the curriculum often results in anxiety  for both educators and students; most meet the task with great hesitation.  The reality, however, is that math is becoming increasingly more critical to highest levels of proficiencies across an array of subjects. Many teachers feel inadequately trained to address math as part of their instruction, often because the traditional style of instruction seems to have lent itself to being ‘locked’ into the math classroom. Moreover, many principals are not particularly well versed in math, further complicating the situation.

The old patterns of isolating math instruction, over a gradual period of time, have produced students who have not learned to connect math with other subject areas. Children who are not taught to think about numbers in complex, abstract or even practical ways show deficits in math, literacy, life sciences, and business-related areas in the later years

What, is the impact of an isolated, nonintegrated math curriculum?

 Innumeracy. Mack (2010) states that ‘Shortly defined, innumeracy is the mathematical equivalent of illiteracy, but is far more widespread and socially accepted than illiteracy.’  Mack suggests that while individuals who excel in math are often dismissed as nerds or bean-counters, in actuality mathematical illiteracy can result in serious problems such as misunderstanding risk, being relatively more concerned about low-probability occurrences, and ‘being taken in by false advertising claims.’

As Michael Seligman, a writer/editor, and music publisher indicated in a post from 1969 (updated in 2011), ‘failure to understand simple statistics may cause us to draw crazy conclusions from firm facts.’ Seligman cites misinterpretations of everything from the ups and downs of the stock market to the misunderstanding the amount of interest charged on credit cards, calculating gambling wins and losses, and understanding the U.S. budget deficits.

What can educators do to help remedy this problem?

Promote Quantitative Literacy

While understanding the basics of math is important, it is not nearly as important as having the ability to ‘search for patterns rather than to follow instructions‘ (Kimball, 2012).  For example, a science experiment may have a procedure and precise numerical measurements to follow, but the interpretation of the results demands a sense of quantitative literacy.  This means that students must reason, infer, and connect numbers to accurately report the results of an experiment. Quantitative literacy also extends to language as well.  Younger students who understand how to solve word problems understand tautologies or produce logical arguments tend at later ages to excel in debates and score better on the verbal portion of the SAT, for example.

One undeniable real-world scenario that meets math and economics concerns the computation of interest.  According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, ‘78% of adults cannot explain how to compute the interest paid on a loan’ (Kimball,2012).  This phenomenon could also be the culprit, at least in part, to blame for the high amount of debt Americans amass each year.

Although this has not been extensively studied, there is a possibility, too, in attributing the rise of obesity to innumeracy.  When someone is ill-equipped in understanding the essentials of math, things like nutrition facts or necessary calorie intake seem foreign and, as a result, are not taken into account.  This then translates into bad habits and, eventually, poor health.

Whatever the case may be, it is impossible to deny the connection that math has with nearly every subject taught in a classroom, and the integral part it plays in daily life.

Interdisciplinary Learning ‘“ 21st Century Learning


The summary report from Project Kaleidoscope states that

“Interdisciplinary learning is a 21st Century imperative.  We are continually faced with societal and global challenges that require interdisciplinary thinking to identify suitable solutions, such as finding new energy sources, dealing with the effects of our changing climate, and ensuring populations across the globe have adequate food and healthy living environments.” (American Association of Colleges and Universities, 2011).

Students who grasp how critical math is across disciplines and situations will gain a perspective that increases the likelihood of their success in school, with problem solving, and in future educational (and life) endeavors. Principals, if you haven’t initiated a “math across the curriculum” approach, 2015 may be the year!


American Association of Colleges and Universities (2011). What works in facilitating interdisciplinary learning in science and mathematics. Washington DC, author. Retrieved from

Mack, J.  (2010, October 1).  Innumeracy.  Retrieved from

Kimball, R.  Math across the curriculum . (2012).National Science Foundation Workshop Retrieved from

Seligman, M. (1969, December 31, updated 2011). Innumeracy: Today’s illiteracy. Huffington Post. Retrieved from


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