What is 32 plus 3?

What is $32+3$? What is $35-32$? This was a question that apparently stumped a clerk in a Macy’s Department Store. My wife recently had to return a wallet back to Macy’s that was purchased for \$32. It was early in the morning and the cash drawer did not have singles. So the clerk did not have the exact amount of cash for \$32. However, the cash drawer had \$30 in cash plus a \$5 bill. My wife offered a solution: taking \$35 from the clerk and returning \$3 to the clerk. The clerk, a woman possibly in her early 30s, did not believe that this is a correct transaction. After my wife explained to her a few times, the clerk reluctantly agreed to this exchange.

This is how the math works in this situation. A customer returned an item back to Macy’s that was worth \$32 plus \$3 in cash. The total value returned to Macy’s was \$35. It was only fair that the clerk gave \$35 back to the customer. This is $32+3=35$.

We can also look at this as a repurchase. Macy’s Department Store was to purchase an item (\$32 in value) from my wife and pay \$35 in cash. Then my wife gave the clerk \$3 in change. This is $35-32=3$.

This is a telling example. Knowing how to do $32+3=35$ in a math assignment at school, at least for some people, does not mean they know how to use arithemtic to make decisions in real life situations. Some people call this having a number sense. Having a strong number sense is the first step in achieving a larger set of skills commonly called quantitative literacy, which usually includes critical thinking, problem formulation, and written and oral communication.

After I heard this story from my wife, I could not help but wanting to give quantitative literacy a plug. Having a better number sense certainly would help this clerk become more effective at her job. Quantitative literacy can also help open doors. There is a whole host of many exciting, highly in demand and well paying careers that require math and science courses in particular and a comfort level with quantitative reasoning in general. Some of these careers only require training at the community college level (an array of jobs in health sciences and computer technology comes to mind). Being proficient quantitatively will give one the confidence and ability to pass the necesary course work to pursue these career options.

How to become more proficient quantitatively? There is no magic bullet. It will take time and effort. There are books that one can read and courses to take. I would also recommend to start with one’s own situation. Start paying attention to the aspects in one’s life that involve quantitative concepts (e.g. work, buying of consummer goods, personal finance, household buget). In the case of the clerk at the Macy’s store, learning how to make changes correctly is a good place to start. Learning the concept of interest (with respect to saving as well as borrowing) and learning how credit card works are a couple of worthwhile examples. Working with quantitative examples in one’s personal life is a good first step.