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“Weather forecasts show that people know more mathematics than they realise”

The weather forecast used to be presented through words, but today it is conveyed using tables and symbols. Researchers at the University of Agder (UiA) believe this implies that people may have a greater aptitude for mathematics than they realise.

Bilde av Anders Wiik
Doctoral candidate Ander Wiik at the University of Agder wants everyday mathematics, such as interest calculations, tax returns, and statistical data in the news, to become a more central part of the school mathematics curriculum.

“Today, weather forecasts require readers to have a good understanding of everyday mathematics,” says Anders Wiik, a doctoral candidate at the University of Agder (UiA) in the Department of Mathematical Sciences.

In a recent study, he demonstrates how newspapers VG and Aftenposten transitioned from verbally describing weather conditions to visually representing them during the period from 1945 to 2015.

In the early years, words were the most important, but from the 2000s onwards, symbols and icons for snow, wind and rain became increasingly significant.

From words to composite texts

Here are some findings about the types of communication dominating the weather forecast during this period:

  • Until around 1980, forecasts rely on textual descriptions with words and numbers. This approach gradually disappears from 1985 onwards.
  • Maps become a common feature in newspapers from the 1980s.
  • Around the year 2000, both newspapers begin to extensively employ tables, maps and graphs.
  • This shift towards the use of maps, tables and graphs signifies that quantitative data becomes increasingly important by 2015.

Understanding the world through maths

“In the past, weather forecasts were delivered as narratives, fully interpreted and presented to the reader in words and sentences. Nowadays, they are more visual, consisting of multiple components that require readers to extract and interpret the information themselves,” explains the researcher.

Wiik believes this suggests that people may have more mathematical skills than they are aware of.

“Today, newspaper weather forecasts are presented as composite texts, conveying quantities, extent, and various numerical values and scales through symbols, maps and graphs filled with information, which require everyday mathematical knowledge,” he says.

Wiik uses a pie chart for cloud cover as an example.

“When cloud cover is depicted in a pie chart, it is essentially fractions we learned in school, involving wholes and halves and thirds and quarters. Weather forecasts using pie charts and other symbols are fundamentally based on numerical values, which is mathematics,” says the researcher. 

Wants everyday mathematics in school

The research fellow teaches mathematics and is actively involved in teaching and learning methods in the field.

“Understanding or making sense of tables, codes, 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 resulted in many pupils lacking confidence in their mathematical abilities.

“The increasing prevalence of quantitative data in the public domain means that everyday mathematical knowledge has become more important for people to be able to engage in public discourse,” he says.

He refers to the concept of ‘mathematical literacy,’ which we commonly refer to as everyday mathematics. And everyday mathematics encompasses more than mathematical procedures, facts and solutions.

“It also involves the ability to extract useful information from composite texts comprising words, numbers and symbols. Proficiency in everyday mathematics essentially entails a solid understanding of mathematical principles,” says Wiik.

Encourages everyday mathematics in schools

According to the researcher, the relationship between school mathematics and everyday mathematics is a complex one.

“In many aspects, school mathematics has become overly abstract and disconnected from the practical numerical and quantitative knowledge that people need in their daily lives,” says Wiik.

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 the school mathematics curriculum.

“School mathematics becomes more balanced and in tune with society if we include more everyday mathematics in the school curriculum. As it stands, we are producing too many pupils with low confidence in their mathematical abilities,” says Wiik.

The study on weather forecasts is a part of his doctoral research, where he explores how everyday mathematics can be integrated into schools to facilitate pupils’ learning of school mathematics.

“Mathematics is not just calculations that follow a set formula that help you arrive at a definitive answer. It is also about tackling problems that may have multiple possible solutions,” Wiik adds.

Kjelde: Anders Wiik: Trends in everyday mathematics: the case of newspaper weather forecasts  i I G. Nortvedt m. fl. (Red.), Bringing Nordic Mathematics Education into the Future: Proceedings of Norma 20, the ninth Nordic conference on mathematics education (ss. 257–264). SMDF.