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NSW Department of Education and Communities

Curriculum support for NSW Public Schools

Numeracy: What is it?

The term numeracy was coined in 1959 by a committee on education in the United Kingdom which said that 'numeracy' should 'represent the mirror image of literacy'.(Crowther Report). Just as the early definitions of literacy have progressed from ‘reading and writing’, numeracy is more than ‘numbers and measurements’. In the eighties, the British Cockroft Committee developed a definition of numeracy. It stated that a numerate person should understand some of the ways mathematics can be used for communication, and this required the possession of two attributes: 

  1. being 'at-ease' with all those aspects of mathematics that enable a person to cope with the practical demands of everyday life
  2. the ability to understand information presented in mathematical terms.

In May 1997, the Australian Numeracy Education Strategy Development Conference developed an overarching framework to describe numeracy. In particular, the following elements are considered central to any description of numeracy: "numeracy involves… using… some mathematics… to achieve some purpose… in a particular context" (p. 13). In New South Wales, we understand numeracy to involve using mathematical ideas efficiently to make sense of the world. While it necessarily involves understanding some mathematical ideas, notations and techniques, it also involves drawing on knowledge of particular contexts and circumstances in deciding when to use mathematics, choosing the mathematics to use and critically evaluating its use. Each individual’s interpretation of the world draws on understandings of number, measurement, probability, data and spatial sense combined with critical mathematical thinking.

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