Weather forecasts show that people know more math than they realize
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Weather forecasts used to be presented through words, but today they are presented using tables and symbols. Researchers believe this means people may have greater ability in mathematics than they realise.
“Today’s weather forecasts require readers to have a good understanding of everyday mathematics,” says Anders Wick.
He is a researcher at the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Agder (UiA).
In a recent study, he shows how Norwegian newspapers VG and Aftenposten moved from describing weather conditions verbally to representing them visually during the period 1945–2015.
In the early years, words were most important, but from the 2000s onwards, symbols and icons of snow, wind and rain have become increasingly important.
From words to complex texts
Here are some findings about the types of communications that control weather forecasts during this period:
- Until about 1980, predictions were based on textual descriptions in words and numbers. This approach gradually disappears from 1985 onwards.
- Maps have become a popular feature in newspapers since the 1980s.
- Around 2000, both newspapers began making extensive use of tables, maps, and graphs.
- This shift towards the use of maps, tables and graphs indicates that quantitative data is becoming increasingly important by 2015.
Understanding the world through mathematics
“In the past, weather forecasts were presented in the form of narratives, fully explained and presented to the reader in words and sentences. “Nowadays, they have become more explicit, consisting of multiple components that require readers to extract and interpret the information themselves,” explains the researcher.
Weick believes this suggests that people may have more mathematical skills than they realize.
“Today, weather forecasts are presented in newspapers as composite texts, conveying quantities, ranges, various numerical values and scales through information-packed symbols, maps and graphs, which require everyday mathematical knowledge,” he says.
Wiik uses a pie chart of cloud cover as an example.
“When cloud cover is depicted in a pie chart, they are essentially fractions we learned in school, including wholes, halves, thirds, and quarters. Weather forecasts using pie charts and other symbols are primarily based on numerical values, which is mathematics.”
He wants everyday math in school
The researcher teaches mathematics and is actively involved in teaching and learning methods in this field.
“Understanding or understanding tables, symbols, maps and icons requires familiarity with everyday mathematics, and this is something schools should focus more on,” he says.
The researcher points out that over the years, the way mathematics is taught in schools has led to many students lacking confidence in their mathematical abilities.
“The increasing prevalence of quantitative data in the public sphere means that everyday mathematical knowledge is becoming more important for people to be able to participate in public discourse,” he says.
It refers to a concept Mathematical literacyWhich we usually refer to as everyday mathematics. Everyday mathematics includes more than just mathematical procedures, facts, and solutions.
“It also involves the ability to extract useful information from complex texts consisting of words, numbers, and symbols. “Proficiency in everyday mathematics essentially requires a solid understanding of mathematical principles,” says Weick.
Encourages everyday mathematics in schools
According to the researcher, the relationship between school mathematics and everyday mathematics is complex.
“In many respects, school mathematics has become overly abstract and disconnected from the practical numerical and quantitative knowledge that people need in their daily lives,” says Weick.
He hopes that everyday mathematics, including concepts such as interest calculations, tax returns and interpreting statistical data in the news, will become a more central part of school mathematics curricula.
“School mathematics would be more balanced and socially relevant if we included more everyday mathematics in the school curriculum. At the moment, we are producing too many pupils with low confidence in their mathematical abilities.
The study of weather forecasts is part of his doctoral research, in which he explores how everyday mathematics can be integrated into schools to facilitate pupils’ learning of school mathematics.
“Math is not just calculations that follow a specific formula that helps you arrive at a specific answer. It is also about tackling problems that may have multiple possible solutions,” says Wick.
Wiik, A. Trends in everyday mathematics: The case of weather forecasts in newspapers, Nortvedt et al. (Eds.), Bringing Nordic mathematics education into the future: Proceedings of Norma 20, 9th Nordic Conference on Mathematics Education2021.
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