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Quantitative Practices

by Peter J. Denning, George Mason University

Excerpted with permission from "Why Numbers Count: Quantitative Literacy for Tomorrow's America," Copyright (c) College Entrance Examination Board, 1997. All rights reserved.

A discussion focused on literacy rather than on practice may not lead to the educational outcome it seeks. In my view, the central question is, "What quantitative practices does a person need to know to be effective?" A focus on literacy can lead toward descriptions and observations of practices, but not into the practices themselves. Literacy is like the menu in a restaurant: it tells you about the dinner, but it cannot feed you. The world of practices is messy: practices defy precise descriptions; new practices are constantly emerging; others are becoming obsolete; practices evolve in harmony with technologies.

High School Mathematics is a beautiful curriculum that organizes the principles in a very logical progression. But it does not teach the practice of mathematics. It is as if the designers of the curriculum were stuck in the notion that practice is the application of theory and will follow naturally when a person is well grounded in theory.

[But] mathematics is more than that. It is a language, a discourse, and a set of practices. ... A practice is a habitual pattern of action engaged in routinely by people in a domain, usually without thought; practices include the standard patterns, routines, procedures, processes, and habits of people acting in the domain. Mathematicians and journalists operate primarily with descriptions. Managers, sports professionals, and coaches operate primarily with practices. Engineers, scientists, doctors, and lawyers deal with both.

Quantitative literacy concerns a student's familiarity with numbers and numerical manipulations. The term "literacy" already reveals a bias toward descriptions. ... [Yet] there is a great richness in practices of working with data and numbers, practices that are not well captured as descriptions. I suggest that we should examine "quantitative practices" rather than "quantitative literacy" to find the answers to our questions about what to teach our students.

Students of the traditionally quantitative disciplines (e.g., science, engineering, mathematics, statistics, and computing) must master the quantitative practices that are important for their daily routines. Indeed, much of the university curriculum in these disciplines is organized to help students learn these practices. For this reason, college and university faculty are concerned that students enter with experience in basic quantitative practices. These include numeracy, a working knowledge of algebra and calculus, and some exposure to statistics--the practices of gathering and recording data, monitoring errors in measurements, and extrapolating trends.

The foregoing analysis strongly suggests that we need to look differently at the role of quantitative literacy in education. We need to reframe the question, focusing not on quantitative literacy but on quantitative practices. Much of what looks like "functional illiteracy" is in fact an absence of relevant practices. Curriculum changes intended to eliminate "functional illiteracy" should get students involved in the practices; merely offering better descriptions will not help.

Peter J. Denning is associate dean for computing and chair of the computer science department at George Mason University. He can be reached by e-mail atpjd@gmu.edu.

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Last Update: July 17, 1997