Numeracy is a super power

One of the new shows in ABC’s lineup this season is No Ordinary Family. It is a show about an otherwise ordinary family who unexpectedly develop super powers.

The father becomes ultra-strong and bulletproof. The mother can heal quickly and has super human speed. The daughter can read minds. The teenage son…wait for it…develops enough numeracy to succeed in his high school courses.

This amazing ability is portrayed as supernatural, as amazing as the rest of his family’s super powers. When he looks at geometry textbooks, he can visualize diagrams. When he looks at a problem on the chalkboard, he can visualize a few steps and then see to the answer. At one point he is holding a textbook and says “I just get it”.

All of these super powers are just normal aspects of being numerate. Imagine watching a show made in a culture where not many people could read and watching a character suddenly being able to understand the words in a book after being sprayed with magical ooze. This is a terrific accomplishment for that character, but in a well educated society where literacy is common, we would scoff at the idea that magical ooze was needed to get the character to read.

This character tells us two things about the zeitgeist amongst TV producers and/or ABC’s target audiences. Firstly, that they see being able to understand math and use it in every day situations as a desirable trait. A trait one would fantasize about having. That’s great! The bad news, however, is that they are also portraying it as mystical. JJ wasn’t born with good math ability, so he needs a supernatural solution in order to pass his exams.

Well, I have good news for all the kids watching this show fantasizing about JJ’s amazing powers. You can have them too! You don’t even need to crash in a plane. All you need is an appreciation for the ways you can apply math in your life, and some willingness to spend time puzzling over some math concepts. Numeracy isn’t a gift, it is something that is earned and developed through work–just like learning to read.

JJ is the late bloomer of the family. So, it will be interesting to see how the show will portray his abilities when they are fully developed. Being numerate may be an amazing accomplishment for JJ, but super human it is not.


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