If half the world was illiterate, would that be ok?

It’s not socially acceptable to be illiterate. It shouldn’t be socially acceptable to be bad at math either.

By Mohamad Jebara, CEO, Mathspace

It’s hard to believe that just over 50 years ago less than half the adult world was able to read (Our World in Data).

For a long time it was widely believed that most people were not capable of reading. Reading was something reserved for the extremely intelligent or the extremely wealthy.

The past…

In 1820 only 12% of the people in the world could read and write (Our World in Data).

Think about it for a second. Had you been born just 200 years ago, it’s highly unlikely that you would’ve been able to read and write. In fact, you would’ve grown up thinking that you’d never be able to read or write.

Imagine if seven out of eight of your friends couldn’t read or write!


Of course today we know that this is nonsense. Studies show that literacy rates are over 99% in many countries (Our World in Data). We know that most people can learn to read and write .

There is now an expectation that people will be able to read and write.

We do not hold the same expectation of mathematics skills.

How many times have you been at a dinner table with friends, and heard someone say: “I’m not a math person”?

How many times have you said it yourself?

People will often confidently make that statement because society accepts poor math skills. This is wrong.

Why is it wrong? Because the truth is that everybody is a ‘math person.’ Mathematics is a human endeavor. It’s what helps us to understand the world around us. If you have any appreciation for art, music, sport, architecture, politics, or logic, then you must have an appreciation for mathematics.

When I think about the history of literacy and mathematics, one thing becomes very clear…

Over the past 200 years literacy has become essential for human development and growth. Mathematics has not.

Today, without literacy skills you cannot finish school, you will not attend university, and it’s highly unlikely that you’ll find employment.

Now think about this…

Today, without math skills, you can finish school, you can attend university, and you’ll probably be able to find employment.

But that won’t be the case for our children’s future.

The future…

We know that over the next 200 years humans will witness extraordinary change. When our children grow up, they will be given different opportunities and they will face different challenges to the ones we face today. To explore these opportunities and solve these challenges, they will need math skills.

Over the next 200 years mathematics and related studies will become essential for human development and growth.

Research indicates that 75 per cent of the fastest growing occupations now require these skills (PWC Report).

Parents need to start placing as much of an emphasis on mathematics as they do on literacy. Math is just as important as reading.

A recent study found that people who are confident in their math ability are more likely to be satisfied with their career (50%) and life overall (63%), compared to those who are not (31% and 50%) (Westpac Numeracy Study).

So what should parents do?

Well firstly, here are two things we know:

  1. The more children do math, the better they become at math.
  2. Our children should always be doing math at the right level for them (which is not always their grade level). They should be doing math that is not too easy, and not too hard. Math that is just outside their comfort zone (often referred to the zone of proximal development in cognitive science).

So parents should be encouraging their kids to do more math, more regularly, at the right level.

Seems pretty simple, right?

The issue is that a lot of parents don’t feel comfortable teaching their children math. How well can you remember high school math? Could you help your child solve an algebraic fraction?

Motivating your child to do their math can be challenging, particularly if you can’t remember how to solve the questions yourself!

What is Mathspace doing to help?

We’ve built a powerful adaptive learning math program that can help kids work in their zone of proximal development — meaning that they are perfectly challenged. Mathspace is never too difficult, nor is it ever too easy. It can be perfectly tailored to an individual student’s level and pace.

We’ve found that Mathspace works incredibly well in schools, where teachers assign mandatory homework. But outside of the classroom it is difficult to get students to log in and do any extra math practice on their own accord. We‘re competing with PlayStation and xBox, not to mention Instagram and Snapchat!

We started to think about how we could make it worthwhile for students to invest some extra time in math education over video games. How could Mathspace help parents to motivate their kids to study mathematics?

In Australia we’ve teamed up with Westpac bank to launch Solve to Save — a new initiative which incentivizes kids to do their math. The idea behind Solve to Save is that your child is financially rewarded with $10 every week for doing their math work!

In a nutshell, this is how it works:

  1. Your child starts using Mathspace (accessing their own personalized math program to suit their level and pace)
  2. You pay $10 each week for access
  3. When your child successfully completes their weekly math tasks, we refund your $10 into their bank account

This means that Mathspace is free, when your child uses it. But instead of us refunding your money back into your own account, we deposit it into your child’s account (as a reward!).

If this works in Australia, we will look to roll the same concept out to other markets too.

Our hope is that Solve to Save will help to motivate children to study math every single week. The regular $10 incentive will reward your child’s efforts in the short-term and build positive habits for the long-term.

Of course, motivation is only the first step. The bigger job is helping every single child to understand that they are a math person.

We are all math people, yet because we all learn in different and individual ways, many of us miss out on the opportunity to excel in mathematics at school.

Let’s help this next generation to get off on the right foot. Let’s help them to build the discipline and the confidence they need to push themselves further.

Strong math skills will help your child at school, at university and will prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow.

Our hope is that one day, 20 years from now, your child will be a dinner party with friends and no one at the party will say: “I’m not a math person.”