Launchings

Mathematics & Democracy + 10

David M. Bressoud, January, 2011

The year 2011 marks the 10th anniversary of the publication of Mathematics and Democracy: The Case for Quantitative Literacy [1]. Lynn Steen was the driving force behind the creation of this statement of what it means to produce a quantitatively literate population and why it is important to strive toward this objective. The publication of this document was a milestone in the growing awareness of the need to address quantitative literacy. The past decade has seen a proliferation of resources and programs desgined to support it.

I first wrote about quantitative literacy in this column in Targeting the Math-Averse (September, 2005). I still like the way I described it there:

Quantitative literacy is the power and habit of mind to search out quantitative information, critique it, reflect on it, and apply it in one’s public, personal, and professional life [2]. The mathematics can be very simple. It is the ability to work in context that makes this a demanding discipline, and, for quantitative literacy, context is everything. The goal is to empower students to reason with the complex quantitative information that is omnipresent in today’s world.

When a group of faculty at Macalester gathered in the fall of 2001 to articulate a common vision of quantitative literacy, we described our intention to be to equip every student with the ability to read the newspaper with a critical understanding of how data, graphs, statistical inference, and numerical information are being used or abused, and a recognition of the quantitative information one would need before forming a reasoned reaction to a particular issue raised in such an article.

As we developed our program, we strayed somewhat from this initial vision (see my description of what we did build at Macalester in [3]). The course that comes closest to being purely media driven is Bernie Madison’s Quantitative Reasoning in the Contemporary World at the University of Arkansas [4]. The latest issue of Numeracy has two articles about this program. The first article [5] describes the course and its challenges. The second [6] focuses on questions that have surfaced in teaching this course, questions suitable for research in undergraduate mathematics education about how college students understand and use elementary mathematics.

We now have a lot of additional information on how to implement and assess college programs in quantitative literacy. I wrote a column in July 2008 on Quantitative Literacy and Teacher Education that reviewed the MAA-published proceedings of a 2007 conference, Calculation vs. Context: Quantitative Literacy and Its Implications for Teacher Education [7], held at the Wingspread Conference Center and funded by the National Science Foundation and the Johnson Foundation. The MAA has also published two other books on quantitative literacy: Achieving Quantitative Literacy: An Urgent Challenge for Higher Education, by Lynn Arthur Steen [8] and Current Practices in Quantitative Literacy, edited by Rick Gillman [9].

There is now a special interest group of the MAA, SIGMAA QL, which “aims to provide a structure within the mathematics community to identify the prerequisite mathematical skills for quantitative literacy (QL) and find innovative ways of developing and implementing QL curricula. We also intend to assist colleagues in other disciplines to infuse appropriate QL experiences into their courses and hope to stimulate the general national dialogue concerning QL.”

SIGMAA QL works closely with the National Numeracy Network (NNN), an organization that “promotes education that integrates quantitative skills across all disciplines and at all levels” by supporting “faculty development, curriculum design, assessment strategies, education research and systemic change. “ NNN publishes an online journal, Numeracy: Advancing Education in Quantitative Literacy [10], in which the three articles mentioned above were published, and maintains an extensive collection of teaching modules and activities [11].


[1] Steen, Lynn Arthur, executive editor. 2001. Mathematics and Democracy: The Case for Quantitative Literacy, Princeton, NJ: National Council on Education and the Disciplines. Available at www.maa.org/ql/mathanddemocracy.html

[2] This sentence is adapted from the vision statement of the National Numeracy Network at serc.carleton.edu/nnn/about/index.html

[3] Bressoud, David. 2009. Establishing the Quantitative Thinking Program at Macalester. Numeracy, 2 (1): Article 3. DOI: 10.5038/1936-4660.2.1.3 services.bepress.com/numeracy/vol2/iss1/art3

[4] The casebook developed for this course is

Madison, B. L., S. Boersma, C.L. Diefenderfer, and S.W. Dingman. 2009. Case studies for quantitative reasoning: A casebook of media articles, 2nd ed. New York, NY: Pearson.

[5] Dingman, Shannon W. and Bernard L. Madison. 2010. Quantitative Reasoning in the Contemporary World, 1: The Course and Its Challenges:. Numeracy, 3 (2): Article 4. DOI: 10.5038/1936-4660.3.2.4 services.bepress.com/numeracy/vol3/iss2/art4

[6] Madison, Bernard L. and Shannon W. Dingman. 2010. Quantitative Reasoning in the Contemporary World, 2: Focus Questions for the Numeracy Community. Numeracy, 3 (2): Article 5. DOI: 10.5038/1936-4660.3.2.5 services.bepress.com/numeracy/vol3/iss2/art5

[7] Madison, Bernard L, and Lynn Arthur Steen, editors. 2008. Calculation vs. Context: Quantitative Literacy and Its Implications for Teacher. Washington, DC: Mathematical Association of America.

[8] Steen, Lynn Arthur. 2004. Achieving Quantitative Literacy: An Urgent Challenge for Higher Education, MAA Notes #62, Washington, DC: Mathematical Association of America.

[9] Gillman, Rick, editor. 2006. Current Practices in Quantitative Literacy, MAA Notes #70, Washington, DC: Mathematical Association of America.

[10] Numeracy: Advancing Education in Quantitative Literacy. services.bepress.com/numeracy/

[11] National Numeracy Network Teaching Resources, serc.carleton.edu/nnn/teaching/index.html


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David Bressoud is DeWitt Wallace Professor of Mathematics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and President of the MAA. You can reach him at bressoud@macalester.edu. This column does not reflect an official position of the MAA.