Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Power of Numeracy and Estimation

I'm a big fan of the ability to estimate and to have a "feel" for numbers. In this day and age of data and info overload, I think it's important that people (specifically, young people) are able to comprehend and process figures that are thrown at them by the modern media. Without it, we become vulnerable to either becoming alarmists at minor things, or complacent when major changes unfold.

For me, a hugely influential book in this area was "Innumeracy" by John Allen Paulos.

It's not uncommon at all to hear people say things like, "A million... a billion... a trillion... it's all the same to me!" or (with a odd sense of pride), "I'm not a numbers person / I've never been good in math / I don't 'do' numbers". We've all heard (uttered?) similar phrases on a regular basis, and don't bat an eyelash.

Yet, imagine the absurdity of hearing someone loudly and proudly proclaim, "I never 'got' that Alphabet thing - all those vowels, consonants, and letters are just too confusing for me!", or "Reading just never made sense to me... leave that stuff to the professors who are in love with their books."

Why is it that illiteracy is universally seen as a serious issue that must be combated (and I think it should), and yet very little is said about innumeracy?

We need to take an active role (especially with our children) to curb this "proud ignorance" and help to establish numeracy as an important foundational element of being a citizen of the world in the 21st century. If you wouldn't dream of skipping more than a night or two of reading your child a story, why not also make it a priority to regularly ask them to engage with numbers (figure out which of two items is a better buy at the store, estimate how many hours/minutes/seconds it is until their next birthday, or figure out how many cents per hour they'll need to save to be able to afford that toy they want)?

It's not that anyone really cares about "how many ping pong balls would it take to fill this room?" or "how many ants are in our front yard?" (I'm the first in line to rail against teaching/learning meaningless facts and figures, but that's a topic for another day's blog :-) ); it's certainly not about getting the "right" answer, either. It's about becoming comfortable enough with numbers that you can make sense of what's "big" and "little" in our daily lives (whether that's the cost of ignoring global warming, money lost in government waste, or just how rich Bill Gates really is.)

One of my favorite efforts in this area was "the power of adding another zero" that was illustrated by Charles and Ray Eames in their "Powers of Ten" video (and Philip and Phyllis Morrison in their book of the same name).

This whole posting was inspired by a chance browsing discovery of a "Powers of Ten '07 (in Flash)" site done by Nikon, called Universcale.

It's creative efforts like PoT and Universcale that help to make numbers, size, and the power of exponential growth (up and down) more relevant and tangible to people.

A few quotes to close:
The reason that children learn a language in a year or two is because it is an environment. There is no reason why physics and mathematics cannot be given the same environmental codification and learned with the same speed and ease.
--Marshall McLuhan

There are three kinds of people in the world - those that understand mathematics and those that don't.
--Ron Zellner

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