There is the popular (amongst statisticians) statement from H.G.Wells. Usually it is quoted as: “Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write.”
According to a paper in Historia Mathematica, what Wells actually said (in 1929) was:
“The time may not be very remote when it will be understood that for complete initiation as an efficient citizen of one of the new great complex world wide states that are now developing, it is as necessary to be able to compute, to think in averages and
maxima and minima, as it is now to be able to read and to write.”
Not quite as pithy as the paraphrase, and sadly he didn’t mention statistics specifically. But – the point is, he was correct – or would have been if he had actually said what he is attributed as having said.
My blog post title today is intentionally provocative, and based on the blog by Andrew Hacker, in the New York Times, “Is Algebra Necessary?”. This article has many academics and others quite exercised at the thought that algebra might not be essential to all students. Or even that someone could dare to suggest that this might be the case. As it is not clear to me what the term “algebra” encompasses, I find it difficult to decide one way or the other. Some aspects of algebra are really handy, and I teach them in my Quantitative methods for business course. (Much to the disgust of some of my students.) But an awful lot of algebra though fun and useful for many professions, is not really essential for the general populace. To me it is more important for someone to be able to interpret statements of causation correctly than to be able to solve a quadratic. Hacker’s point is that this obsession with algebra for all is providing a barrier to students who are otherwise talented and capable.
It seems that people on team: “Algebra for all” have a somewhat privileged view of the populace. They are concerned for College students and particularly physicists, engineers and biologists. And they seem to be focussed on occupational concerns more than citizenship. Surely the subjects that everyone is required to master, should be the subjects needed for being an “efficient citizen,” to borrow Wells’s phrase. What skills and attitudes and knowledge do we want all our citizens to have, regardless of their career path? I think an understanding of variability and data are pivotal to effective decision-making.
By the time a person leaves compulsory schooling they should have a working understanding of the nature of variation in the universe and the implications of this variation. They should be able to examine data presented in various forms and make judgments from it. The Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction in Statistics Education (GAISE) Report of 2005 states: “Every high school graduate should be able to use sound statistical reasoning to intelligently cope with the requirements of citizenship, employment, and family and to be prepared of a healthy, happy, and productive life.” How does algebraic reasoning fit in that sentence? It is more difficult to see the direct benefit to citizenship, though for some employment it would be needed.
The study of the discipline of statistics teaches a wide range of skills:
Number skills, writing, critical thinking, application, lateral thinking, argument, reasoning, visual interpretation, communication, persistence, coping with ambiguity. These are skills important for citizenship.
Andrew Hacker, in his controversial article “Is Algebra necessary?” said, “Ours is fast becoming a statistical age, which raises the bar for informed citizenship. ”
And Rob Knop commented in his response to the Hacker article, “So, yes, I would agree that we could and perhaps should de-emphasize algebra in favor of making time for statistical awareness, and perhaps in filling in the basic number sense that students failed to get out of elementary school.”
It is interesting that both sides of the argument agree on the necessity of statistics in education.
In New Zealand the curriculum area previously known as Mathematics is now called Mathematics and Statistics, and statistics is getting a much greater emphasis at all levels of schooling. However there are mathematics teachers who still perceive statistics as one of many sub-branches of mathematics, though this is not how statisticians perceive their discipline. (For more about this maths/stats divide, see an earlier post, “Hey mathematics – leave the stats alone.“) There are problems arising, as many of the teachers are not as familiar with statistics as they would like to be. It has been interesting reading the bulletin boards where teachers express their concerns. The transition will be challenging for many. And there may arise a new breed of teacher who specializes in teaching statistics.
This is an exciting time to be a statistics educator. The research is there, the will is there, the technology is there and the need is there. Move over, Algebra. Statistics is coming through.
For any loyal followers who tune in each week, there will be a break for a few weeks unless I can convince my colleague to do a guest post. See you in September!