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Supermarket Math

Many people, perhaps most people, claim to be unable to do math. What they generally mean by "math" in this context is basic arithmetic. They usually base their self-assessment on their poor performance in school arithmetic tests. But does a low score on a school arithmetic test necessarily indicate a poor head for figures? Not according to several researchers who have looked into the matter. Jean Lave, an anthropologist in the Department of Education at the University of California at Berkeley, spent time among a group of apprentice tailors in Liberia between 1973 and 1978. Her goal was to compare the way people learned in school -- where the learning takes place out of any context of use and without any immediate use for what is learned -- with the way they learned particular skills on the job, when they really needed what they learned. (In her own terminology, she wanted to compare "formal" learning with "informal" learning.) She chose arithmetic not because she had any particular interest in mathematics, but because it was easy to test people's ability and compare the results. Lave published her findings in her 1988 book Cognition in Practice: Mind, Mathematics and Culture in Everyday Life. Devlin’s column, Supermarket Math, is based on Lave’s research and findings.
Author(s): 
Keith Devlin
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation: 
Mathematical Association of America
Published: 
1999
Resource Type: 
Product
Number of Pages: 
5
Product Type: 
Abstract: 

Many people, perhaps most people, claim to be unable to do math. What they generally mean by "math" in this context is basic arithmetic. They usually base their self-assessment on their poor performance in school arithmetic tests. But does a low score on a school arithmetic test necessarily indicate a poor head for figures? Not according to several researchers who have looked into the matter. Jean Lave, an anthropologist in the Department of Education at the University of California at Berkeley, spent time among a group of apprentice tailors in Liberia between 1973 and 1978. Her goal was to compare the way people learned in school -- where the learning takes place out of any context of use and without any immediate use for what is learned -- with the way they learned particular skills on the job, when they really needed what they learned. (In her own terminology, she wanted to compare "formal" learning with "informal" learning.) She chose arithmetic not because she had any particular interest in mathematics, but because it was easy to test people's ability and compare the results. Lave published her findings in her 1988 book Cognition in Practice: Mind, Mathematics and Culture in Everyday Life. Devlin’s column, Supermarket Math, is based on Lave’s research and findings.

What the Experts Say: 

This article is excellent and thought-provoking. It is easy to teach only as one has been taught; however, one of the most common complaints about mathematics is “when will I ever use this?” Mathematics in adult education must enable the adult learner to use math in daily life and in the workplace, and to be able to recognize and carry out abstract mathematical tasks in a formal and accepted manner in order to make a successful transition to postsecondary education.  This article addresses the first of these priorities.  Emphasizing that adult learners likely know much more math than they think they do, the article challenges teachers to be more aware of the capabilities of adult learners and to utilize strategies adults already use outside of the classroom as fodder for classroom instruction. Articles like this one help teachers reflect on what skills they are teaching and how students will be able to apply these skills.  The article could be used as a stimulus toward discussion among teachers for professional development and, perhaps, classroom action research. 

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