Being afraid of math prevents people from dealing with it when they need it – even if they learned it at school, a new Israeli study asserts

A whole new vocabulary has been forced on people around the world – including Israel – since COVID-19 emerged as a global crisis. The news has been dominated by graphs and terms like “R numbers” and exponential growth, variants, social distancing, lockdowns, ventilators, pandemic, flattening the cure, quarantine, mRNA vaccines, ECMO machines, antibodies, fatality rates, even the differences between viruses and bacteria – and much more. 


We have had to process so much in so little time; we had to become experts about important differences such as epidemic vs. pandemicquarantine vs. isolation, respirator vs. ventilators and contagious vs. infectious – and most difficult to understand were the mathematical concepts. Public understanding of mathematics is relatively under-researched, compared to public understanding of science.

Experts in the Faculty of Education in Science and Technology at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa were interested in the extent to which the average adult understands the quantitative information appearing in the news during the first wave of COVID-19 cases in Israel (March and April 2020).

The study’s lead author, Prof. Einat Heyd-Metzuyanim, and colleagues published a study on this entitled “Mathematical media literacy in the COVID-19 pandemic and its relation to school mathematics education,” in the journal Educational Studies in Mathematics

In the first months of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic became a top concern worldwide, media coverage became full of information that demands mathematical literacy, or numeracy, to interpret. In this study, the team wrote, “we examine the public’s understanding of mathematical notions that are required for understanding the pandemic and predicting its spread. We also explore its correlations with several variables: age group and gender, educational attainment in mathematics, and mathematics identity. To do so, we conducted a cross-sectional survey focusing on mathematical knowledge relevant to the pandemic.”

The results of the new research paint a discouraging picture: When asked about “math in the news” items presented to them, even people who had taken advanced mathematics classes in high school did not typically figure everything out, but obtained only an average “grade” of 72 out of 100. But these advanced learners make up a small minority of high school graduates. Those who took only the mandatory level of high school math – as over 50% of high school graduates with official Israeli matriculation certificates tend to do – correctly interpreted much fewer items on average (54 out of 100).


Results were even more troubling for participants who had not passed all the examinations required for the official state matriculation certificate. Participants in this group obtained an average “grade” of 44 out of 100 – suggesting they didn’t understand over half of the items in the questionnaire. This latter group represents about 45% of the total cohort of 17-year-old Israeli youth in recent years. These findings, wrote Heyd-Metzuyanim, raise concern about the relevance of school mathematics to the real-life needs of most learners and call attention to the importance of providing all learners with mathematics literacy.


The findings emerged from a new study on mathematical media literacy among a representative sample of 439 Israeli adults. The study was conducted by a team of Technion science education researchers who were surprised to find a factor that appears to be even more strongly associated with the participants’ understanding of mathematical information in the news than the level of math they had taken at school –

the participants’ self-perceptions as being “good at math” and the extent they find mathematics useful and interesting. This finding suggests that being afraid of math prevents people from engaging with it when they need it – even if they had learned it at school. 


“These results seem to show that school mathematics, especially in its high levels, may prepare adults to understand critical information important for their well-being, such as at a time of global pandemic. But they also indicate that negative attitudes towards math may significantly hinder adults’ engagement with such information,” said Heyd-Metzuyanim.


 “Our findings should trigger some soul-searching in the mathematics education field,” she added. “After all, the goal of learning mathematics, for most of the public, is to be able to deal with mathematical information in their daily lives. We should therefore make sure that high-school graduates leave school with both the cognitive tools for processing mathematical information around them, and the attitudes and dispositions that would allow them to do so.”


The team presented a bar chart of mortality rates of COVID-19 by country, reportedly based on governmental data, that had been presented on the Channel 12 TV News evening newscast in Israel on March 29, 2020. According to Israel Audience Research Board data, this newscast was the most watched TV program on that day, reaching an estimated viewership of 12.5% of individuals ages 4 and up in Israel, The country names and reported mortality rates, from top to bottom, are Italy (10.84%), Spain (8.17%), France (6.07%), China (4.03%), the USA (1.75%), Germany (0.75%), and Israel (0.31%). But the team found that many of the viewers did not understand the chart. 


One of the major mathematical topics, which stood at the heart of much of the public reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic, is that of linear vs. exponential growth. There is a significant body of research showing that the differentiation between these two types of growth is a major challenge both to school students and adults 

During the first weeks of the pandemic, and especially during lockdown, the Israeli newscasts were overwhelmingly focused on the virus, its spread, and the measures the government was taking against it. The Israeli prime minister and other government officials gave live televised speeches almost every evening, declaring the latest restrictions. 

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on TV that the coronavirus is spreading in a “geometric sequence.” ‘One person infects two, each one infects two more, the four infect eight, the eight 16 and so forth… The rate of infection is not constant. It starts as if it is constant, but ascends quickly to enormous heights,’” he said.


Participants were recruited by a market research firm from an online panel representative of Hebrew-speaking Israeli internet users between ages 18 and 70. The survey was launched on April 2nd and closed on April 12, 2020. 

The researchers found a widespread lack of understanding of mathematical terms. This has important implications for the ability of the public to assess the daily news about COVID-19. For example, it may lead to people being relatively indifferent to the growth rate during initial phases of the pandemic, when the numbers of added cases per day are still small, the authors suggested. 

One of the main reasons for making mathematics a compulsory subject to all pupils – not just those who will continue to take more advanced math – is to provide these individuals with the knowledge and skills which may help them to cope with exactly such a scenario as the necessity to interpret mathematical information during a world-wide pandemic, they wrote. However, the ability of participants who took only compulsory level math to interpret the mathematical aspects of news around COVID-19 was quite low. “This raises serious doubt regarding our participants’ ability to be critical consumers of such news at a time when it is most relevant to directing their behavior.”

In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic brought us a unique, perhaps unprecedented, opportunity to study how the public engages with numbers “in the wild,” they concluded. “This study, we believe, shows that there is certainly room for improvement in this respect. We believe this has consequences for the media, which needs to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the public in understanding mathematical information. However, more importantly, our findings should trigger some soul-searching in the mathematics education field. After all, if school mathematics does not prepare its graduates to engage with the mathematics that surrounds them in everyday life, what good does it serve for the vast majority of the population?”



Israel in the News