## 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.

## Midpoints

I’m a big fan of college basketball, and I really enjoyed the section of Dan Pink’s book When that discussed midpoints. Pink shared interesting research of college basketball teams which showed that teams that were down by one point at halftime were more likely to win the game than the team that was up by one point. When teams were down by more than one at halftime they were less likely to win the game, but a one point deficit seemed to be a good thing. The reason, according to Pink’s read of the research, that the team down one at halftime came back to win was due to the “uh-oh effect” which spurred a sense of urgency for the losing team. The team that was up one point, and teams that faced larger halftime deficits were more likely to face an “oh-no effect” and were more likely to retreat.

Thinking about college basketball teams at halftime can translate into other aspects of our lives. If we hit 40 or 50 years-old we might have our own “uh-oh” or “oh-no” moment. When we are two quarters into the big project at work that we said we would complete before the end of the year, when we are halfway through a school semester, and every day at lunch we face a midpoint. We can look at what we have accomplished up to that point and decide whether we are going to push forward and double our effort, or if things feel hopeless and we might as well fold.

Regarding midpoints, Pink writes, “with midpoints, as with alarm clocks, the most motivating wake-up call is one that comes when you’re running slightly behind.” In college basketball, the team that is down one at the break realizes that they still have a chance, and that they need to pull things together to get the win. In life, we recognize that we have wasted several years at a job we dislike, that we haven’t hit the milestones on our work-project that we need to, or that we didn’t perform as well as we hoped on that midterm exam. These moments can spur us to action if we see that we are not too far off pace to reach our goals. However, if we are really missing the mark, we should recognize that midpoints can turn our motivation the other way.

If we see that we don’t have a chance of living in a mansion after all, if we won’t hit the project deadline even if we add 10 additional staff, and that we have no chance of getting an A in the course after bombing a midterm, then we are likely to give-up. In work and school we don’t have control over when we set the midpoint, and that wake-up call can be painful. Walking away might really be our best bet.

In life, however, we can control what we consider the midpoint, and we can change our motivation accordingly. Where it might make sense in business or school to walk away and focus a better effort elsewhere, in life we must move forward. Our best option becomes changing our midpoint perception and finding a way where we can look at our life and see ourselves as just slightly behind where we want to be. That way we take advantage of the motivation form the college basketball study and spur an “uh-oh effect” rather than face an “oh-no effect” and give-up.

What is important to recognize with midpoints is that they can be an opportunity for honest reflection of our progress in life, business, and other endeavors. Where we find ourselves at the midpoint can shape how we perform for the second half. Being slightly off-pace can spur us to action, but finding ourselves way behind can trigger a sense of defeatism. When possible, we can manage our halftimes to be more favorable for us, but when we can’t pick and choose our midpoint, then we face tough decisions in how we proceed.

## 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.

## Failure in School

Everyone knows it is important for children to be successful in school and to grow to be more thoughtful and successful later in life. One of the challenges with the current school model that Ta-Nehisi Coats points out in his book Between the World and Me is the way in which our education system is designed for a specific culture with specific expectations for specific students. Those who match the culture and who have the right support from parents and teachers find success, but those who don’t fit with the culture of the schools, who don’t have support from parents, and who don’t have safe environments are left behind. Our individualized culture, focused on self-reliance and self-responsibility often looks at schools as though they are an equalizing force, giving each student an equal opportunity to grow and succeed, but Coats views schools differently.

“The society could say, ‘He should have stayed in school,’ and then wash its hands of him,” Coats wrote about the system he found him self in as a child. The great equalizing power of school, was an equalizing of blame, moving the responsibility for success or failure from society on to the individual. This meant that the child whose parents worked two or three jobs, the child whose parents dealt with substance abuse, and the child who had to walk home along dangerous streets was now on equal footing with the children in gated communities with parents who could afford to stay at home and pay for private tutors. In this model it is not the parents, not the society, and not the culture of the school that are responsible for whether kids learn and grow, but rather the children themselves who bear the responsibility of success in school.

When we criticize those who do not complete school and resign them to low paying jobs, poor housing, and exclude them from society, we are reducing their future based on factors they could not control growing up. For me it seems unreasonable to ask so much of a person at such a young age, to demand that they not make mistakes and demand that they become more than human before they are 18. For Coats, it was unreasonable to demand academic success from young children who lacked the support and guidance of parents, who had to learn in schools that  did not accept the culture of the child, and who have to navigate the tough social realities of concentrated poverty. The most challenging part of the system, as revealed by Coats, is the idea that school was a great equalizer, and that after someone failed in school, they could be forgotten by society.