Negative Numeracy

My brother-in-law came across a news story from November in the Manchester Evening News demonstrating just how poor math skills are in this country. The story is just too good not to post in full, though I’ve highlighted a few things in bold:

A LOTTERY scratchcard has been withdrawn from sale by Camelot – because players couldn’t understand it.

The Cool Cash game – launched on Monday – was taken out of shops yesterday after some players failed to grasp whether or not they had won.

To qualify for a prize, users had to scratch away a window to reveal a temperature lower than the figure displayed on each card. As the game had a winter theme, the temperature was usually below freezing.

But the concept of comparing negative numbers proved too difficult for some Camelot received dozens of complaints on the first day from players who could not understand how, for example, -5 is higher than -6.

Tina Farrell, from Levenshulme, called Camelot after failing to win with several cards.

The 23-year-old, who said she had left school without a maths GCSE, said: “On one of my cards it said I had to find temperatures lower than -8. The numbers I uncovered were -6 and -7 so I thought I had won, and so did the woman in the shop. But when she scanned the card the machine said I hadn’t.

“I phoned Camelot and they fobbed me off with some story that -6 is higher – not lower – than -8 but I’m not having it.

“I think Camelot are giving people the wrong impression – the card doesn’t say to look for a colder or warmer temperature, it says to look for a higher or lower number. Six is a lower number than 8. Imagine how many people have been misled.”

A Camelot spokeswoman said the game was withdrawn after reports that some players had not understood the concept.

She said: “The instructions for playing the Cool Cash scratchcard are clear – and are printed on each individual card and in the game procedures available at each retailer. However, because of the potential for player confusion we have decided to withdraw the game.”

More than 15m adults in Britain have poor numeracy – the equivalent of a G or below at GCSE maths.

Almost three times as many UK adults (15.1m) have poor numeracy – the equivalent of a G or below at GCSE maths – than with poor literacy skills, according to the government’s Skills for Life survey.

Peter Hall, of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, said: “The concept of minus numbers is something we would cover with 11 or 12 year olds, and we would expect them to have come across it before.

“The concept of smaller numbers is something that some people do seem to struggle with. Seven is clearly smaller than eight, so they focus on that and don’t really see the minus sign. There is also a subtle difference in language between smaller – or lower – and colder. The number zero feels lower.

“There have always been some people who find numbers and basic mathematics difficult. Maybe in the past it was less noticeable because people could find jobs they could excel in without having qualifications in maths.”

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4 Responses to “Negative Numeracy”

  1. Elizabeth Says:

    This was amazing in the truest sense of the word.
    I don’t know whether to be terrified or roll on the floor laughing. Possibly both.

    Have some of these people who complained **ever **seen a thermometer, for instance ?
    The mind boggles.

  2. Michael Says:

    They may have only seen digital thermometers, not the old-fashioned fluid-in-a-tube kind. Digital clocks, thermometers, etc. tend to conceal the realities of certain numerical relationships.

  3. Elizabeth Says:

    That is very true, Michael. I had not thought of that.
    I am showing my age !
    I am old enough to have worked with mercury thermometers with gradated scales, when it was easy to work out 🙂

  4. sol Says:

    I still refer to a couple of the bold sentences – first that Camelot would have fobbed her off with some story that -6 is higher than -8 (*cough* chav *cough*) and that 15 million adults have G or no GCSE (so certainly no older O Level) in maths – that’s approximately 31% of the adult population. Considering that with some exam boards 16% will now get you a C grade in maths, immumeracy is only going to be on the increase.


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