Developing Adults’ Numerate Thinking: Getting Out From Under the Workbooks


Mary Jane Schmitt
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
TERC, Cambridge, MA
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

 In this article, the author makes a case for substantive change in how and what we teach in mathematics. She describes the primary use of student workbooks to prepare for GED and explains why this practice provides a second-rate education for students wanting to learn math.

To improve adult math education in ABE, the author discusses myths that need to be seriously challenged. The article is developed with discussion of the way that research and policy is challenging the math status quo, the need to view the focus for adults on “numeracy” rather than “school math,” and the need for the adult basic education field to make changes in the teaching of mathematics.

Note: The links to various web-based documents listed at the end of the article are no longer valid links. This article summarizes important findings from these historical resources published in the 90’s. Information on more recent mathematics/numeracy resources can now be found on this LINCS math/numeracy collection and at the Adult Numeracy Network (ANN) site (

What the experts say

Unfortunately the field of adult education math teachers is in constant flux, due no doubt to poor funding for programs and staff, and many of the new math teachers are not trained specifically for teaching math. Although this short six-page article was published in September, 2000, the points made by Mary Jane Schmitt still need to be emphasized for all of those who find themselves teaching math to adults.

Since at least 1994, Schmitt has been an international leader in the movement to reform the ways in which mathematics is taught to adults. An experienced teacher, professional development specialist, and researcher, she knows of what she speaks!

Schmitt describes seven policy/research documents published in the 90's that exposed the need for math instruction to be more than a " sequence of rule-based instructions that can be matched to one-step or two-step word problems.” These documents taken together strongly bring home the point that adults need math to be relevant to their roles as workers, household managers, and community members. Rather than workbook math they need math " to aid in the accomplishment of a larger task...math for the lived in world." Her explanation and discussion of why “workbooks are anything but benign”, a will resonate with any instructor.

Used as the primary resource, workbooks are anything but benign: they promote not a second chance but a second-rate education for students wanting to learn math. It is second rate because the mathematical demands of the world inhabited by adults are not sufficiently emphasized.

Schmitt acknowledges that for many adults their immediate goal is to pass the GED test. She reassures that empasizing estimation and problem-solving skills will better prepare students to achieve that goal.

Schmitt says “It is never math for math’s sake, but math to aid in the accomplishment of a larger task”. This is an eloquent argument for reform in the way math is taught to adult learners. The article also is a good beginning point for those instructors who may not know the term “numeracy” and its relationship to the mathematical skills adults need to function in today’s world.

Resource Notice

This site includes links to information created by other public and private organizations. These links are provided for the user’s convenience. The U.S. Department of Education does not control or guarantee the accuracy, relevance, timeliness, or completeness of this non-ED information. The inclusion of these links is not intended to reflect their importance, nor is it intended to endorse views expressed, or products or services offered, on these non-ED sites.

Please note that privacy policies on non-ED sites may differ from ED’s privacy policy. When you visit, no personal information is collected unless you choose to provide that information to us. We do not give, share, sell, or transfer any personal information to a third party. We recommend that you read the privacy policy of non-ED websites that you visit. We invite you to read our privacy policy.