Teaching Statistical Thinking

“Statistical thinking is the most useful branches of mathematics for life,” writes Gerd Gigerenzer in Risk Savvy, “and the one that children find most interesting.” I don’t have kids and I don’t teach or tutor children today, but I remember math classes of my own from elementary school math lessons to AP Calculus in high school. Most of my math education was solving isolated equations and memorizing formulas with an occasional word problem tossed in. While I was generally good at math, it was boring, and I like others questioned when I would ever use most of the math I was learning. Gerd Gigerenzer wants to change this, and he wants to do so in a way that focuses on teaching statistical thinking.
Gigerenzer continues, “teaching statistical thinking means giving people tools for problem solving in the real world. It should not be taught as pure mathematics. Instead of mechanically solving a dozen problems with the help of a particular formula, children and adolescents should be asked to find solutions to real-life problems.”
We view statistics as incredibly complicated and too advanced for most children (and for most of us adults as well!). But if Gigerenzer’s assertion that statistical thinking and problem solving is what many children are the most excited about, then we should lean into teaching statistical thinking rather than hiding it away and saving it for advanced students. I found math classes to be alright, but I questioned how often I would need to use math, and that was before smartphones became ubiquitous. Today, most math that I have to do professionally is calculated using a spreadsheet formula. I’m glad I understand the math and calculations behind the formulas I use in spreadsheets, but perhaps learning mathematical concepts within real world examples would have been better than learning them in isolation and with essentially rote memorization practice.
Engaging with what kids really find interesting will spur learning. And doing so with statistical thinking will do more than just help kids make smart decisions on the Las Vegas Strip. Improving statistical thinking will help people understand how to appropriately respond to future pandemics, how to plan for retirement, and how think about risk in other health and safety contexts. Lots of mathematical concepts can be built into real world lessons that lean into teaching statistical thinking that goes beyond the memorization and plug-n-chug lessons that I grew up with.

Taking Issues of When Seriously

I wrote earlier about moving school start times to a later hour for high school students. In most school districts across the United States, our high school students start the day the earliest, and our elementary school students start the latest. Research, however, shows that swapping that order and pushing high school students’ start times back would improve learning as measured by test scores, reduce traffic accidents, and help high school students get more sleep.

Nevertheless, changing school schedules so that high school students start the day later would be inconvenient for adults, and we also have the idea that we need to push high school students to start their day early to prevent them from being staying up all night long with video games and social media. We choose not to consider the when of school start times, even though we will spend hours debating what books should be read in English class and whether art should be a requirement.

As Dan Pink writes in his book When, “We simply don’t take issues of when as seriously as we take questions of what.”

School start times are only one instance where we deprioritize the when. As far as I can tell, we operate with many inefficient whens in our lives without anyone taking much action to really change them. Many of us are now knowledge or service workers, and we often work 8 hour shifts for no obvious reason. Our work start times are all pretty uniform, and with our consistent 8 hour shifts, we also end at the same time, putting a huge strain on infrastructure for just a few short hours every morning and evening.

I see only a few whens that really seem to count for a lot in our daily lives. The start time of our work, the duration of our work, and the end time of our work. These whens are crucial and often inflexible. Every other when in our lives seems to be crammed around those three.

What I find disappointing, however, is that we don’t actually ask if those three whens make any sense. We focus on the whats all the time: did a report get finished, did we reach a sales target, what did the student learn? But we don’t often ask these questions in a meaningful way in relation to time: could the report have been finished in half the time, when should we reasonably expect to reach a sales target, what is the best time for student engagement with math versus art?

Asking if someone was at their desk at 8 a.m. and if they stayed at their desk for a full 8 hours doesn’t really tell you if they were effective or efficient. This isn’t a valuable way to look at time in our modern world and economy. Our when can be a lot more flexible, and increased flexibility, I would argue, can help improve the outcomes we actually want to see. Thinking differently about the when would help us to do better work and interact better with our world. We don’t need to hold on to rigid expectations about the timing of work or school, what we need is to find avenues to help people produce the best work and learn the most effectively.

Start High School After 8 A.M.

I’m a super early morning person and I have been since high school, but I was definitely a bit of an anomaly in high school and throughout college. Most high school students, not necessarily through their own poor decision-making or bad habits, go to sleep a lot later at night and don’t wake up very early. It is a pattern that is made fun of in families and in popular culture, but it is a pattern that seems to be pretty stable and should be considered when we think about designing a school system for teenage children that maximizes their educational opportunities and efficiency.

This is an argument that Dan Pink presents in his book When. In most places in the United States, my hometown of Reno being one of them, our high school students have the earliest start time. Middle school students head to school next, and our elementary age children start school the latest. This allows us to have three different bus schedules that pick up the oldest kids in the early morning, then get the next youngest group, and finally get the little guys. What we prioritize is an efficient bus schedule that feels safe for our youngest kids, not necessarily our kids learning.

The problem with this schedule is that it is a bit backwards for our oldest and youngest children. Our younger kids tend to wake up a little sooner and would actually do better than our teenagers with starting school early in the morning. Teenagers need just as much sleep as kindergartners, but rarely get enough. Moving school back for them would actually help them get more sleep and be better students. Their learning would improve, their driving would be safer, and hopefully outcomes for our high school students would be better in the long run.

Pink references a study of start times for schools writing, “one study examined three years of data on 9,000 students from eight high schools in Minnesota, Colorado, and Wyoming that had changed their schedules to begin school after 8:35 a.m. At these schools, attendance rose and tardiness declined. Students earned higher grades in core subject areas of math, English, science and social studies and improved their performance on state and national standardized tests. At one school, the number of car crashes for teen drivers fell by 70 percent after it pushed its start time from 7:35 a.m. to 8:55 a.m.”

I understand that we don’t want to encourage teenagers to stay up all night on phones and computers, and I recognize that many people would be afraid that pushing the start of school back would do just that, but as it is now, we force teenagers into settings that are not conducive to learning. We make them start school early, prevent them from getting enough sleep, and put them in dangerous situations due to fatigue. What our current system reveals is that we value efficient bus schedules and perhaps a feeling of safety for our smallest kids over the actual learning that is supposed to take place in school. Perhaps it is fine to express our values this way, but we should take a critical look at the learning taking place in our schools and make sure that we are ok with the values we prioritize when it comes to our children’s school schedules. Making a switch would likely help our students learn more and save lives, two outcomes that should be high priorities for society and our education systems.