Adult Numeracy: Mathematics for Empowerment

Historically, numeracy has tended to be overlooked in adult education, especially compared to literacy (Tout, 2020: 1). Nevertheless, in the last decades, with the quick changes due to globalisation and digitalisation of the world, there has been a shift towards increasing attention to adult numeracy, enhanced through large-scale assessment programs, such as the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) in the 1990s, the Adult Literacy and Lifeskills (ALL) survey in the mid-2000s and the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), in 2011.

In addition, the United Nations has also explicitly addressed numeracy in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Agenda, in Target 4.6, to highlight the gap regarding numeracy (and literacy) levels across the globe.

Numeracy, understood as “the ability to access, use, interpret and communicate mathematical information and ideas, in order to engage in and manage the mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life” (OECD, 2012: 34), constitutes an essential element to enhance the resilience of citizens and communities (Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe, 2020).

Furthermore, it is argued as key for civic societies of the 21st century for their well-being and active participation, as well as for their economic and social development (Tout, 2020).

Numeracy should, therefore, not only be seen as mathematical knowledge, but as a complex competency of critical awareness to build bridges between mathematics and the real world (Johnston, 1994: 34). In this sense, Geiger et al. (2015: 535) argue that “an important aspect of becoming numerate is developing the capability to take a more critical view of the world —from personal, social, and political perspectives”.

21st century technological, scientific, economic, and social changes and developments require adults and young people to have more reflective and reasoning skills. Hence, numeracy is no longer only functional numeracy but also critical numeracy, which allows youngsters and adults to navigate a wide range of life domains through mathematical knowledge and application.

In fact, critical numeracy and quantitative knowledge are relevant for adult empowerment (Díez-Palomar, 2019) and can be used to make claims for social justice (Gal et al, 2020: 383). Fostering development of adults’ skills in numeracy is also a way of countering marginalisation since adults with lower numeracy skills are often described as vulnerable, marginalised or at high risk of being excluded from labour markets and social life (OECD, 2019), getting into what has been coined by Burdett and Smith (2002) as a “low-skilled trap”. This concept implies that lower numeracy and literacy levels can cause a less favourable starting position in the labour market, which in turn may lead to unemployment or low-level positions in organisations with low salaries and fewer development possibilities and career prospects (Windisch, 2015: 25).

Helping low-skilled adults to escape from the “low-skilled trap” Thus, to tackle this challenge and provide opportunities for adult learners, it should be taken into account both formal, non-formal, and informal learning pathways (Gal et al, 2020: 390).

In this regard, our project NumericALL acknowledges this situation and prioritises the supply of high-quality learning opportunities for low-skilled individuals. The project aims the development of gamified mathematical tools as well as to provide adult trainers and lifelong learning centres with the necessary technical knowledge and skills of 3D Modelling to create a gamified mobile museum and pedagogical materials for its implementation.


Burdett, K. & Smith, E. (2002). The Low-Skilled Trap, European Economic Review, 46, 1439-1451.

Díez-Palomar, J. (2019). Dialogic Mathematics Gatherings: Encouraging the Other Women’s Critical Thinking on Numeracy. ZDM Mathematics Education.

Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe. (2020). OER on Introduction to Adult Numeracy Training: Section 3.

Gal, I., Grotlüschen, A., Tout, D., & Kaiser, G. (2020). Numeracy, Adult Education, and Vulnerable Adults: A Critical View of a Neglected Field. ZDM: The International Journal on Mathematics Education52(3), 377–394.

Geiger, V., Goos, M., & Forgasz, H. (2015). A rich interpretation of numeracy for the 21st century: A survey of the state of the field. ZDM, 47(4), 531–548.

Johnston, B. (1994). Critical numeracy. Fine Print, 16(4), 32–35.

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. (2012). Literacy, Numeracy and Problem Solving In Technology-Rich Environments: Framework for the OECD Survey of Adult Skills.

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. (2019). OECD Skills Strategy 2019: Skills to shape a better future. Paris: OECD Publishing. 64313835-en

Tout, D. (2020). Evolution of adult numeracy from quantitative literacy to numeracy: Lessons learned from international assessments. International Review of Education, 66, 183–209.

Windisch, HC. (2015). Adults with Low Literacy and Numeracy Skills: A Literature Review on Policy Interventions (OECD Education Working Paper no. 123), Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.


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