Statistics For All!

As a good introduction to this post, watch the following three-minute snippet from TED, featuring Arthur Benjamin.

In that short clip, Dr. Benjamin (yes, he really is a Ph.D., I looked it up this time) suggests that we wouldn’t be in the economic mess we’re in now if more American adults had a basic understanding of statistics.  Then, this article came out recently asking if algebra is necessary, which struck a nerve with many, many people from all walks of life.  One commenter on the article stated something (in an angrier tone than I will) that I agreed with: how can students appreciate statistics without a basic understanding of algebra?  And then, I’ll add a word: linear.

What this is really about is the lack of differentiation we offer to students.  Math is a notoriously cookie-cutter subject, with teachers, parents, and politicians chanting that all students must have calculus by their senior year in high school.  My question is: Why?

To back up a bit, let’s look at a little bit of general history. Keep in mind, the public education system has historically educated our people to the extent of the technological needs. For example, in the agrarian societies of the 18th and 19th centuries, it was only necessary to learn the basic arithmetic that would help a farmer geometrically plan and maintain crops, be able to deduce and predict output from what he planted or grew, and be able to calculate in terms of decimals and money. In other words, the mathematical needs for the average 18th and 19th century citizen were, at most, roughly equivalent to the middle-level math we teach today.

As the Industrial Revolution began transforming our country (and the world), there was an obvious need for a more mathematical society. With the growing technological needs of the nation, the education system found a need to educate its citizens up to a (current) high school level. Engineering and manufacturing proficiencies became the new standards by which to match math education. Therefore, the studies of motion and forces—and therefore algebra and eventually calculus—became the pedagogical goal of the public school systems.

Calculus!

CALCULUS!!

The Cold War boosted this need even further, as America strived to maintain competitiveness within an increasingly technological and scientific rival. It was calculus that got us to the Moon, the planets, and beyond (and created methods for launching fiery death around the globe). Thank goodness for calculus!

But it wasn’t for everyone. Not everyone had a hand in the travels among the stars or the planned annihilation of enemies, and those who didn’t still typically only achieved a 9th or 10th grade math education. In order to be part of an economy based on financial growth for the middle class, the skills needed were vastly differentiated, but they didn’t include calculus for much of the population. Those who did use algebra and calculus became proficient in using prescribed algorithms to reach a desired solution to a problem (or creating new ones for Wall Street hedge funds companies).

Which brings us to the present. We no longer live in a manufacturing or industrial world—to clarify, most citizens will not be working in the manufacturing or industry sectors. Calculus is still widely used in the scientific, engineering, and financial sectors. But most citizens in the 21st century now live in what the researchers call a “knowledge economy,” where a citizen’s worth is based on what that citizen can understand, analyze, predict, and conclude about a problem—and then solve that problem. This set of skills is becoming increasingly reliant on the tools and processes that citizens should learn in their K-12 and postsecondary education.  Included in that skill set, as Dr. Benjamin asserts, is the ability to think digitally.

The digital world runs on data.  Data is analyzed using probability and statistics.  Every citizen should know how this works and, vastly more important, how to make sense of it.  So the culminating event in a typical high school senior’s mathematical career should not be calculus; it should be a deep understanding of statistics.  If a student is on track to enter a STEM field requiring calculus, then by all means, offer that student high school AP courses in calculus.  For the rest of us, it’s essential that we not waste time (or students) on trying to force something that cannot be and should not be forced.

However, I also believe that basic linear algebra is essential.  Understanding how data behaves against a line of regression and calculating changes in that data is important.  If we teach Algebra I (or its equivalent) by 9th grade, then there is no reason our 21st century goals can’t be met.

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About Kris Nielsen
Kris L. Nielsen has been a middle grades educator and instructional leader for ten years in New Mexico, Oregon, and North Carolina. He is a graduate of Western Governors University’s Master of Science Education program, with emphasis on child development and instructional technology. Kris is an activist against corporate education reforms and has had his writing featured in several online magazines and blogs, including those of the Washington Post and Diane Ravitch. Kris currently lives in New Mexico with his young son and beautiful wife.

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