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Why experts are rethinking how we teach statistics in schools

Mathematical literacy doesn’t just underpin the jobs of the future – it sets us up to be more effective critical thinkers in an era of misinformation.

Mathematics is behind everything we do in an advanced society, and as we become more dependent on technology in Australia, it will underpin more jobs than ever before.

And yet, fewer and fewer young people are pursuing mathematics in their later years of high school, let alone at university. The shortage of local workers who are skilled in mathematics and technology is making its mark on industries such as banks, tech firms, and even government agencies, all of which are seeking skilled staff offshore.

The answer is to make mathematics education in Australia more engaging and more effective, particularly in those crucial years from early childhood to secondary school.

This is something that Associate Professor Rosemary Callingham and her colleague Professor Emerita Jane Watson from the Faculty of Education at the University of Tasmania have grappled with for most of their careers.

“We know there is a shortage of mathematicians and statisticians. In fact, if you’re a statistician, you’re almost as rare as hen’s teeth in Australia at the moment,” says Associate Professor Callingham.

By influencing how mathematics is taught in Australian schools, Associate Professor Callingham and Professor Watson are hoping to have an impact on policy, curriculum development, and the approaches taken by teachers to change the way mathematics is perceived by young people.

Even if better teaching methods do not lead directly to a career in mathematics, they will foster more informed citizens in general, says Professor Watson.

She explains that strong foundations in mathematics can actually make you better equipped to navigate the current “fake news” era – particularly if you’re comfortable around statistics.

“I want citizens who are going to go out and ask questions of their politicians. I want them to question their insurance policies, and every time they read an article that says, ‘the survey says,’ I want them to be asking questions,” says Professor Watson.

Teachers matter

With a PhD in mathematics education, Professor Watson does not call herself a statistician, but was drawn to the subject in the early 1990s when it was first included in school curricula.

“We had a large number of teachers out there who were very good mathematics teachers, but there weren’t very many who had actually trained in statistics as part of their pre-service education,” she says.

“Most only knew about the subject if they happened to do a statistics course as part of their degree, in science.”

For Associate Professor Callingham, whose first degree was in chemistry, statistics beckoned through its application to the real world.

“Statistics, in a sense, is the ultimate application of mathematical ideas, but in a rich context. There's been relatively little work done on statistics education in a broad sense. Professor Watson really has been a trailblazer in this area.”

Together, their work has positioned them as leaders in shaping how statistics is taught in schools.

In the early days, while addressing the professional development of teachers, the pair partnered with the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), which ended up being the perfect opportunity for direct industry collaboration.

“They were a fantastic partner. We had about 45 teachers across three states that the ABS brought to their Statistics Centre in Melbourne,” says Professor Watson.

“We brought people in from overseas, from one of our other partners in that project, the publisher of a software called TinkerPlots, which we use often in our activities with school students.”

It was an enormously complex project, but the researchers found that, where the teachers were given professional development programs, the students improved – and continued to do so, year after year.

“We found that, when they moved into another class with a new teacher, if that teacher had been, or was still, part of a professional development program, the kids continued to rise in their understanding,” says Associate Professor Callingham.

“You need more than just two or three really good teachers in a school. To make real change, you have to have whole schools involved, the support of the principals, and so on.”

Context is everything

Another part of the puzzle lies with the children themselves.

As Professor Watson points out, statistics at a tertiary level is a highly theoretical and technical discipline.

“You need a good background in mathematics to do the theoretical parts of statistics, and this isn’t appropriate for children,” she says.

“Outside of theoretical statistics, there’s no point in doing statistics without a context – the context is what gives it meaning. What we're getting students to do is activities based in contexts that are leading them to think about what statistics is about. And even if they don’t go on to study statistics, we’re hoping that they will be able to go out into society and question things that they're being told in the media.”

For example, in the classroom, grade five children could collect data to ask the question, “Are we environmentally friendly?"" and would have to work out the relevant criteria – say, if 50 percent of the class answers environmentally friendly questions in the positive.

They could then see if this answer is representative beyond the classroom, based on an ABS population of data for children in grade five in Australia.

“They’re not using formal statistical inference, such as p-values. They’re asking questions, collecting data, drawing graphs, and analysing them to answer the questions, stating their confidence in the answer. They are using informal inference, which is based on the evidence they have collected,” says Professor Watson.

“And so, if they get to university, they will say, ‘Oh, I've done that before. They're just giving me a more theoretical way of doing it.’”

About the researchers

Associate Professor Rosemary Callingham

Rosemary has an extensive background in mathematics education in Australia, in teaching and research. Internationally she has worked in Hong Kong and with UNICEF in North Korea. She is an acknowledged expert at using Rasch measurement techniques and has collaborated with some of the top specialists in this field. She also uses other statistical and quantitative methods, as well as a range of qualitative approaches, usually in some form of mixed method research. Her specific research interests include teachers' pedagogical content knowledge, statistical literacy, mental computation, and assessment of mathematics and numeracy.

Professor Emerita Jane Watson

Jane Watson is Professor Emerita in the Faculty of Education, where she carries out research, mainly in the area of Statistics Education. She has supervised 11 PhD students to completion, been involved in 20 professional development programs and consultancies for teachers and education systems, and been a Chief Investigator on 20 large or small research projects funded by the Australian Research Council.

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