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  • Marcus J. Hopkins

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mathematics?

A sad mature businessman thinking about complex math problems
Adult innumeracy—the inability to solve basic math equations—impacts 3 out of every 4 adults in the Appalachian Region

By: Marcus J. Hopkins

December 13th, 2023

In 2022, out of 81 countries that participated in Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) that evaluates the academic performance of 15-year-old students and compares them across nations, the United States ranked 26th in #Mathematics skills (Mahnken, 2023).

These findings made headlines, last week, as every nation's schools attempt to recover from what was essentially two to three years of lost educational hours for adolscents due to the #COVID19 pandemic.

Ironically, 26th is actually an improvement for the United States. The results from 2018 had the United States ranked 29th in mathematics. This likely indicates that other nations saw greater COVID-19-related declines in educational outcomes than the United States (Mahnken).

In a follow-up article written on December 11th, 2023, Bob Hughes argues that the reason why American students perform so poorly is because #PISA assess math skills in the context for real-world situations and problems:

Students must demonstrate an ability to use mathematical reasoning to make purchasing decisions, plan routes around a city and interpret data about smartphone use. Math is grounded in practical applications, and the test itself underscores why math matters to most students and adults. (Hughes, 2023)

Hughes points out that 45% of teachers who responded to a RAND Survey indicated that students failed to create any real-world assignments or projects that are valued by people outside of their classrooms (Hughes, 2023).

As a student, both in high school and as an adult learner, this was the entirety of my educational experience in mathematics. I struggled a lot with math classes, in part because it was all "math for math's sake;" learning equations, formulae, and theora, regurgitating them, and attempting to understand what they meant and how to use them. Beyond basic mathematics skills—addition, subtraction, multiplation, and division—none of the intermediate and advanced skills really made much sense to me.

It wasn't until I began applying mathematics — statistics, specifically — to the topics and areas of my life that I cared about — public health — that any of it started making sense. More importantly, it was then that numeracy started to be important to me.

According to Hughes, we need to begin implementing a mathematics education that grounds teaching in identifying how it can be applied in practical ways: how to create and balance a budget; how to plan a trip; how to consider and find solutions to address income inequality.

This same educational philsophy needs to be applied in adult educational settings, as well. Too often when we teach math to adults, we take them back to the rudiments of mathematics without putting those teachings into the context of our students' lives.

Research has found that average students exposed to Contextual Teaching and Learning (CTL) models tend to display significantly higher mathematical understanding than those students who learned math using traditional models — 76% higher (Tamur et al., 2020).

A greater concern, however, is that, as we continue to focus on the educational needs of America's children, we must also focus on reengaging the adults our education system failed. This means increasing both federal and state-level financial investments in adult education beyond simply investing in trade skills, but specifically in raising the literacy and numeracy proficiency levels of adults.

As APPLI moves into 2024, we will begin examining those investments in Appalachia. We need your help to make this research possible.

Please help us reach our end-of-year fundraising goal by making a donation using the form below or by visiting our Donation page at:


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