What comes to mind if you think about numeracy or financial skills? For too many people, the strongest feeling is shame. The text is an editorial written for issue 3/2020 on Adult Education and Numeracy & Finance.
Doing research for this issue, I found that numeracy and financial literacy don’t have the reputation of being particularly fun or exciting things to learn.
The way in which these skills are often discussed probably does not help.
The rigid language of ‘lower numeracy levels’ or ‘improved financial capability’ do not accurately convey how deeply ingrained numeracy and financial questions are in our everyday lives – not just in career progression or when we are applying for a loan, but also when we are lying on the couch and watching the news.
The strongest common denominator I found between numeracy and financial skills, however, was shame.
When I talked to researchers, practitioners and adult learners about numeracy, one of the first things most of them mentioned was something negative: mathematics is seen as something strict and scary; it is often used for selection and many of us can relate to the fear of getting the wrong answer when it comes to numbers.
In fact, many adults of today have had such bad experiences with maths that they suffer from maths anxiety, which makes solving mathematical problems even more difficult.
Similarly, one’s inability to manage one’s finances can be a huge source of shame, making it hard to seek guidance or support when needed. Overall, our relationship with money is rarely rational – a notion not surprising considering how often wealth is perceived as an indicator of success in life in general, and how strongly money is tied to our deepest desires and fears.
WE ALL KNOW THAT SHAME is a not a good place to start learning.
Neither is the fatalistic language often used around numbers, perpetuating the idea that numeracy and financial literacy are something you simply have or do not have, rather than skills that can be practised and learned like any other.
One example of this is how socially acceptable it is to make statements such as “I am just bad with numbers” or “I am bad with money”.
Whether we like it or not, in many ways data and money rule the world.
But perhaps part of the problem is also the way numeracy and financial literacy are often taught to us.
Generic workshops for improving numeracy or training for better budgeting skills can easily have a patronising tone, and might not properly consider the specific needs and individual, often highly unequal life situations of adults.
NUMERACY IS MUCH MORE than learning certain calculations, and financial literacy is much more than learning to pay bills on time. In this issue, we therefore wanted to try and broaden the lens through which we look at these terms.
For numeracy researcher Anke Grotlüschen, it is clear that adult numeracy education should also be critical, teaching people to scrutinise how numbers and data are being used in our society and what we can do about it.
One example of a key numeracy skill needed more than ever is the ability to interpret and analyse the statistical information we are constantly bombarded with. But it could be argued that numeracy is also understanding how algorithms work or how the data we share on social media is used.
In other words, numeracy is everywhere.
Moreover, rather than focusing solely on personal financial management, we also wanted to look at the bigger picture: what is this thing called the economy that we are all part of? And finally, how can we make the conversation around economic questions more accessible and diverse?
Whether we like it or not, in many ways data and money rule the world and, at least for me, the closer I look, the more fascinating the question of education around numeracy and finance becomes.