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Innumeracy – It’s time for the Two Minute Warning

Real World Numeracy

As every year goes by we are surrounded and influenced more and more by technology, but much of this is of little value without a strong grasp of numeracy.

Background – I’m extremely fortunate.  My mother was a teacher and, quite literally, for as long as I can remember I have been hooked on numbers. 

I can categorically state that this has held me in good stead all my life. However the counterpoint is that I get frustrated that so many people from all walks of life cannot grasp, let alone even hope to maintain, an adequate basic level of numeracy sufficient to get the most out of life.

Mission Statement – This might sound frightfully formal, and totally off-putting, but what it basically reduces to is the acquisition and then, just as importantly, the retention, expansion and practice of the type of numerical skills that have been, are, and will be vital to the success of every family, community and country across the globe.

Impact of Technology

I can remember 40 years ago when the first pocket calculators were becoming affordable, concerns were expressed that people would lose the ability to do mental and written arithmetic.  And going on from that, such “skills” as using logarithmic tables or a slide rule. 

Instead, the focus back then should have been, just as it is today for what it should be, how we can embrace technology to make the whole learning, living, existence function easier. 

The problem is that whilst computerised word processing packages have made the typewriter redundant and scientific calculators have kicked tables and complex graphs well and truly out of the ball park, we have largely forgotten just how important basic number manipulation remains in our everyday lives, and, shamefully, failed to use technology to disseminate this most important basic life-skill, after communication, to almost everyone on the planet. 

The Balanced Approach

I was lucky enough be born at a time when the phrase “instant gratification” had hardly been thought of, let alone acquired its near-dominant status of today.  I am not knocking modern computer games and simulations per se – they have proved themselves many times over as educational and entertaining – and have promoted motor skills way beyond what could scarcely be dreamt of merely two decades ago. But many is the time the latest fad is abandoned after one or two plays. 

I can recall the introduction of the now ubiquitous Digital Versatile Disc and an associate questioning the acquisition of then relatively-expensive music CDs that would probably only be listened to once.  Of course he was essentially proved right, but the trade-off has been a useful music library little different in context from numerous non-fiction books accumulated over the years.  Retention of knowledge, and practice, of Parento’s principle of distribution (the 80:20 rule) might have saved some money over time, and the law of diminishing returns on each subsequent purchase, but where do you draw the line when it comes to collecting?

Early Steps

It was perfectly natural, at a young age, not being burdened by massive choice back in the 1960s and 1970s, for anyone having the slightest interest in numbers to be captivated in the UK by cricket and horse racing; at a time when the plethora of international sport and multiple betting mediums was undreamt of. 

So I was quickly hooked on the numerical possibilities and enjoyment cricket provided; so much more mentally stimulating that the twice-yearly Arsenal 2 Tottenham Hotspur 1 and not as complex as the horseracing handicapping and patterns.  Fairly detailed scores from the daily paper provided opportunity to work out simple batting and bowling averages (arithmetic means), and my brother and I kept “score” of simple games played in the garden that were a variant on French cricket involving an old tennis racket and almost life-expired balls.

...and Innovation

From this and some scrap card I developed a simple card game that originated with a one-third scale-down of the then 60-over one-day format.  Genuine amateur 20-over games were then called “beer-matches” that took place if the regular game finished early.  From this I replicated three-day championship matches and devised a formula whereby every five overs, when the cards were shuffled, the “Not Out” cards were swapped for an alternate dismissal according to how many wickets had fallen in the innings.  It wasn’t brilliant but I got it to work.

From Board Games to War Games

As I got older, my interests expanded from classics such as Formula 1, Totopoloy and Monopoly, incidentally often played with house variants, to the world of wargaming.  Without doubt I would say at least 80% of the enjoyment for me was the adjustment of commercial rules, formulation of house rules and the consequential analysis of their results and further adjustment.

Although I already had a keen interest in history, this catalysed interests in the more specialist field of military particularly with regard to strategy, tactics, organisation and logistics – all of which have served me to good stead to varying degrees in the succeeding years.

Globalisation of Numeracy

Much as I enjoyed Bridge and Chess, and for a number of years closely following National Hunt racing on a daily basis, it occurs that all this sounds rather selfish; but then I suppose at an individual level the acquisition of any knowledge is intrinsically selfish. However, it was the advent of American Football proper in the UK in 1984, complete with its plethora of statistics, that set me on the path to establishing the www.2MW.co.uk website.

There were a number of basic card games around at the time, none of which really worked in my opinion, but to counterpoint, if I’d known how long it would take to create a reasonably functional mathematical model (albeit with a long hiatus for several years), then I probably would not have bothered.

Numeracy: The Skills of a Lifetime – I don’t think there was ever a eureka moment as such but as the modelling for the 2MW American Football Game evolved, I gradually became aware…no I gradually came to understand this was a vehicle by which, thanks to the internet, I could spread the word about the importance, value and practice of numeracy around the world. 

I have not yet followed the established route of creating an electronic version as yet, as many other games have done, for, as many have commentated, it is one thing to play poker on line; quite another to take on others face-to-face around a table.  The project is still in its very early stages of development and indeed the first version of the printed card game includes some printed backs with plain faces, either to use as spares or to encourage the end-user to try out their own ideas and variations. 

What I want to get across with the game is that it can be fun learning about number handling and making calculations from statistics that you have generated yourself.

The concept of 2MW, both website and game, is not cast in stone, nor is it unique.  So far, using data either generated by the 2MW game or made up/interpreted myself, I have sections looking at topics from Basic Mathematical Operations, Fractions, Ratios, Significant Figures and Decimal Places to Averages, Motion (particle) and Distribution.  A key topic I have called The Cake utilises several of these key topics. 

What I am trying to get across is that, just as a basic understanding and use of English is vital as it is the safety critical communication of the world, a grasp and practice of numeracy is just as important, by whichever methods best suits for you, and remains a key skill for future success.

About the Author

Hugh Nightingale, aged 55, is a retired Network Rail signaller, born and living in Ashford Kent England with his wife Rebecca.  Outside of numeracy, his other interests include photography (one book published), voluntary work on the Kent & East Sussex Railway including Assistant Editor for the house magazine - the "Tenterden Terrier", current affairs and history.  He is also a Trustee for The Terrier Trust that owns two of the famous Victorian Brighton-built Terrier steam locomotives.

In recent years he has become interested in genealogy, specialising in the Romney Marsh area.  Hugh follows Kent Country Cricket, Tottenham Hotspur, National Hunt racing and American Football - Denver Broncos in the NFL and Oregon Ducks in the NCAA.