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Millennials Fail at Numeracy

You’re in a dungeon with two doors. One leads to escape, the other to execution.

Do we have your attention? Good! This riddle’s relevance to a discussion on the failure of American students to meet the necessary minimum standards of numeracy is to be explained as we continue...

There are only two other people in the room, one of whom always tells the truth, while the other always lies. You don’t know which is which, but they know that the other always lies or tells the truth. You can ask one of them one question, but, of course, you don’t know whether you’ll be speaking to the truth-teller or the liar. So what single question can you ask one of them that will enable you to figure out which door is which and make your escape?

The preceding riddle was recently found in an op Ed by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times  entitled,  "Are You Smarter Than An 8th Grader?" Besides this riddle, the answer to which you will find at the end of our post, and a number of other purely mathematical riddles designed to see if you were indeed smarter than an eighth grader, there was also the following rather disturbing statement:We know Johnny can’t read; it appears he is even worse at counting.  (The “Johnny” in this case is students of that generation known as the Millennials; those students born after 1980 who reached young adulthood at the turn of this century)  In spite of the great respect due any utterance found in the editorial section of  The New York Times, this is an open ended statement that begs the question, “Oh, according to whom?”

Unfortunately, the short answer seems to be, “nearly everybody.” Mr. Kristof’s source is the (ETS) Educational Testing Service’s 2012 report entitled “Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).” The ETS, the world’s largest private, nonprofit educational testing and assessment organization, in a test of 20 countries discovered that American students in spite of having received more certificates and high degrees than any previous generation, “demonstrated relatively weak skills...in numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments compared to their international peers.” Nor was the ETS alone in this discovery; further research found that at least three well-known and respected American educational assessment organizations, the NAEP, the ACT and the SAT agree with this grim assessment of the proficiency of American students regarding numeracy.

Numeracy, by the way, doesn’t just mean the ability to count. The term numeracy was first coined in 1959 by a committee on education by our close friends in the United Kingdom and  their definition still resonates today:  first of all, they felt numeracy meant that the individual was comfortable with all aspects of math that allow a person to "cope with the practical demands of everyday life." Secondly, numeracy required "the ability to understand information presented in mathematical terms."

That was in 1959; an era when the "ability to understand information presented in mathematical terms" and "cope with the practical demands of everyday life" meant little more than the individual making change on the job as as clerk at a retail store.  In 1959 middle-class jobs in the United States could still be found in their millions on factory production lines; Math ability was less at a premium than patience.  50 years later employers no longer care whether employees can make change or not, the cash registers do it for them; but production line jobs have disappeared, and in order to make a middle-class wage in this new technology obsessed environment a greater facility with math is critical.

Today the ability to think numerically is also considered as part of the larger intelligence picture; it is seen as a sign that the individual can think logically and solve problems not strictly mathematical in character. Mr. Kristoff’s riddle in the New York Times is an example of such a problem and here is the non-mathematical answer:

You ask either of them: “If I asked the other person which door is the one to escape, which would he point to?” Then you take the other door.

This country obviously has a problem instructing its youth in math. But in the matter of educating American youth for future employment, ‘failure,’ as they say, ‘is not an option’ if this country hopes to continue its technological dominance and economic security. We at RobotsLab believe that educational technology is the answer; technology that interests, involves, and stimulates a desire in students to become more skilled in numeracy. And that technology in our view is our robots! Robots fascinate people young and old; working with robots involves and stimulates kids in a manner no book or blackboard ever could. Robots are educational technology personified!


  • Nov 3, 2015 9:58:00 AM

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