The Case for Integrating Quantitative Reasoning with Writing

"numbers [are] the principal language of public argument" 
— Website for the BBC Radio 4 program More or Less

In "The Case for Quantitative Literacy" Steen (2001) warns, "The world of the twenty-first century is a world awash in numbers....Unfortunately, despite years of study and life experience in an environment immersed in data, many educated adults remain functionally innumerate." 

Many institutions have responded to this challenge by creating quantitative reasoning (QR) programs. While experts recommend that effective programming require students to apply skills in diverse contexts, too often these programs are sequestered in a small corner of the curriculum because many faculty remain unconvinced of QR's relevance to their students. To surmount these cultural hurdles, QuIRK has developed an innovative model of curricular reform which emphasizes the rhetorical aspects of QR in student writing. Because all faculty care deeply about students' abilities to write effective arguments, the initiative has attracted significant participation from traditionally less-quantitative departments.

Steen clearly articulates the importance of addressing QR difficulties in our data-rich world. Educators' failure to prepare students to reason with numbers hampers them throughout their lives-as workers, managers, and professionals; in their comprehension of personal finance and health decisions; in academic disciplines as diverse as biology, economics, language, psychology, and visual arts; and in their understanding of culture and the role which mathematics has played in its formation. In the words of the British Broadcasting Corporation radio program, More or Less(2007), "numbers [are] the principal language of public argument" in the 21st century. Those unable to argue and reason on these terms are at an extraordinary disadvantage.

While the potential payoffs to educational improvement are large, the nature of QR presents challenges for traditional curricular reform. The literature identifies four facets of QR. 

  1. First, effective QR requires mastering a basic skill set. Without a nuanced understanding of basic mathematical concepts like ratios, percentages, and averages it is impossible to apply that quantitative knowledge with a high degree of sophistication. This understanding includes an appreciation for both the power and limitations of various QR tools.
  2. Second, unlike traditional mathematics, which is intentionally abstract, QR requires that these skills be implemented in context (De Lange 2003 p. 80, Richardson and McCallum 2003 p. 100-102, Steen 2004 p. 9-10, Bok 2006 p. 129). Steen writes, "The test of numeracy, as of any literacy, is whether a person naturally uses appropriate skills in many different contexts" (2001 p. 6). Contextualized problem-solving requires students to engage in intellectual transference, applying lessons learned in one setting to a newly discovered problem. To teach QR in context, effective programs must "permeate the curriculum, not only in the sciences but also in the social sciences and, in appropriate cases, in the humanities" (Bok 2006 p. 134).
  3. Third, students must learn to communicate contextualized applications of QR (De Lange 2003 p. 77, Brakke 2003 p. 168). This includes visual presentation through tables and figures in addition to writing with numbers.
  4. Finally, even students with the ability to communicate quantitative evidence in context must acquire the habit of mind to approach questions with a quantitative lens (Steen 2001 p. 5, Hughes-Hallett 2003 p. 91, Steen 2004 p. 16-17). Steen argues that students "need a predisposition to look at the work through mathematical eyes" (2001 p. 2).

The multi-disciplinary, contextual character of QR often confounds efforts to create effective QR programs. As QR expert Lynn Steen (2004) points out, "Curricular talk tends to be dominated by disciplines....With no discipline naturally exercising leadership, there is neither an insistent nor a consistent call to make [QR] a priority of education at the college level" (p. 13-15). Even when a group of faculty members drawn from across the disciplines overcome institutional barriers and agree to prioritize QR instruction, it can be very difficult to devise a program which truly infuses the curriculum.

Without an obvious means of practically implementing an institution-wide effort, QR programs often settle for a simpler approach: a "Q course" graduation requirement. While these courses are undoubtedly an asset to the curriculum, they tend to congregate in a few departments and so reinforce the notion that QR is relevant to only a subset of students. Steen writes, "If [QR] remains the responsibility solely of mathematics departments-especially if it is caged into a single course such as 'Math for Liberal Arts'-students will continue to see [QR] as something that happens only in the mathematics classroom" (2004 p. 18). What is more, just as in the case of single-course writing requirements, the Q-course program fails to require the sustained engagement with quantitative material required to develop a sophisticated level of skill and a true habit of mind.

The challenge, as Deborah Hughes-Hallett (2007) puts it, is to "foster a conspiracy" in which faculty in all divisions repeatedly challenge students to apply QR in a wide variety of contexts. To overcome institutional and cultural barriers to an across-the-curriculum "conspiracy", QuIRK has emphasized the rhetorical elements of QR, placing itself within the context of Carleton's Writing Program. As a result, we are able to take advantage of the broad faculty involvement in and existing structural support for the effective student writing.

The focus on student writing and integration with the Writing Program has allowed QuIRK to implement reforms rapidly and to engage faculty with broad disciplinary representation. In three years, QuIRK events have attracted participation from roughly 40% of the faculty. What is especially notable is the curricular change inspired in members of traditionally less-quantitative fields such as Music, Environmental Studies, English, American Studies, History, Philosophy, and Cinema and Media Studies.

We believe the engagement of faculty members across the College stems from three advantages which flow from our relationship with Carleton's Writing Program. First, writing programs have amassed a wealth of knowledge concerning the development of across-the-curriculum programming: we need not reinvent the wheel. Second, existent writing programs already reflect the unique campus culture allowing nascent QR programs faster integration into the curriculum. Finally, the rhetorical slant on QR appeals to a broader audience ensuring greater buy-in from fields which traditionally eschew quantitative topics.

References

Bok, Derek 2006. Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Brakke, David F. 2003. "Addressing Societal and Workforce Needs," in Quantitative Literacy: Why Numeracy Matters for Schools and Colleges, Bernard L. Madison and Lynn Arthur Steen, eds. Princeton, NJ: National Council on Education and the Disciplines.

De Lange, Jan. 2003. "Mathematics for Literacy" in Quantitative Literacy: Why Numeracy Matters for Schools and Colleges, Bernard L. Madison and Lynn Arthur Steen, eds. Princeton, NJ: National Council on Education and the Disciplines.

Hughes-Hallett, Deborah J. 2003. "The Role of Mathematics Courses in the Development of Quantitative Literacy" in Quantitative Literacy: Why Numeracy Matters for Schools and Colleges, Bernard L. Madison and Lynn Arthur Steen, eds. Princeton, NJ: National Council on Education and the Disciplines.

Hughes-Hallett, Deborah J. 2007. Plenary remarks at Quantitative Literacy and Its Implications for Teacher Education conference hosted by Preparing Mathematicians to Education Teachers, June 22-24, 2007.

More or Less, British Broadcasting Corporation radio program. Retrieved April 27, 2007, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/more_or_less/1628489.stm.

Steen, Lynn Arthur. 2001. Mathematics and Democracy: The Case for Quantitative Literacy. Washington DC: Mathematical Association of America.

Richardson, Randall M. and William G. McCallum. 2003. "The Third R in Literacy" ," in Quantitative Literacy: Why Numeracy Matters for Schools and Colleges, Bernard L. Madison and Lynn Arthur Steen, eds. Princeton, NJ: National Council on Education and the Disciplines.

Steen, Lynn Arthur. 2001. Mathematics and Democracy: The Case for Quantitative Literacy. Washington DC: Mathematical Association of America.

Steen, Lynn Arthur. 2004. Achieving Quantitative Literacy: An Urgent Challenge for Higher Education. Washington, DC: Mathematical Association of America.