Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Why We Fail at Teaching the Language of Data

May 2010's Wired magazine has an interesting article by Clive Thompson on why we should learn the language of data. In short, he argues that we rely too much on anecdotal evidence and simple cause-and-effect solutions to difficult, multifaceted problems. We can't seem to look at data critically, whether it be polls and other research with poor methodology or counter-intuitive conclusions based on good data (think of the not-so-obvious ideas coming out of the Freakonomics camp).

Why is this so critical? "We live in a world where the thorniest policy issues increasingly boil down to arguments over what the data mean," says Thompson. "If you don't understand statistics, you don't know what's going on--and you can't tell when you're being lied to."

Thompson doesn't explain why this is true, but I have some ideas on that: our national and state standards and priorities for mathematics have to be at the top of the list of culprits.

We do teach a bit of basic data analysis all the way through high school, but not nearly enough.  Schools certainly spend a lot of time on probability, if you consider how the topic seems to be revisited every year from late elementary onward.  Unfortunately, a lot of that work veers too far away from the practical (You have 4 red marbles, 3 blue marbles, and 6 yellow marbles in a bag...) to be something students can really get engaged in. 

Problem solving, finding reasonable answers, determining what data is needed to solve a problem are all things we gloss over in order to practice multiple-choice questions and breaking down cryptic word problems.  Since our national and state priorities seem to be focused on the still-vague notion of "21st century skills" and preparing students for the growing number of high tech jobs (regardless of whether students are interested in pursuing those kinds of jobs or not), we focus more on a broad range of algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus skills throughout the middle and high school grades.  By the time many students finish high school, they're a jack of all mathematical trades, master of none.

Aside from problem solving skills, we don't spend enough time on proportional thinking (everything from using percents to measurement and scale) and just plain number sense that everyone could use on a daily basis.  What we're left with is a nation of people who fear math, who run to a calculator for the most rudimentary problems, and as Thompson pointed out, who don't know when they're being lied to.

What do you think?  Sound off in the comments.