Monday, September 29, 2014

Statistical Literacy: Reforming the Aim of Statistical Education

This video is a vignette of how statistics can be employed in a meaningful way. As a student who formerly struggle to like statistics, you have no idea how much this intrigue me. I believe the other end of the statistics teaching and learning spectrum, which in this case will be statistics teachers struggling to present statistics as interesting, will find this as intriguing as I do. 

I will be a total bore and start from defining statistics, which widely accepted as a science or practice that related with collecting, analyzing and infer from a large sets of data. The more organized a society is, the more important statistics will be, because certainly you cannot handle each individual data from each member of society separately. We need statistics for that; to collect, organize, and analyze the data as a whole, and from there making inference that gives us information about certain aspect of society. It can be economy, population or environment, just to name of view. 

Given the importance, one can say that statistics can be thought as a separate branch of knowledge. Which it is, but for some reason it gets overlapped a lot with mathematics because statistics, embroiling a lot of counting as it is, is certainly very mathematical. But where does statistics stand compared to mathematics? It is actually one of the five strands of mathematics, along with number sense, geometry, algebra, and measurement. Hence its taught in primary and secondary school as part of the mathematics curriculum. But statistics also stands out quite special because well, we have mathematicians and statisticians, but we don’t have calculust or geometrist … okay, this is just a joke of mine, but you gotta admit it makes quite a sense. Most of the non-teaching professions that employ math usually need math in the form of combined application of all the strands, with one or some fields being emphasized more than the other, but statistics have field of application that stand out by itself. In tertiary education, not all college majors have to take math, but statistics are usually taught because its importance for research. 

But I pretty massively digress. The point that I’m trying to make is that although statistics is part of mathematics, it is also stand out quite differently by itself. This by all means does not translate to it being the special snowflake; more of the opposite, to be honest. Mathematics is glamourized by the nerds as the science of logic and statistics is often pushed to the edge because it is thought to only consist of numbers (a lot of it) and counting. Counting a lot of numbers is boring, it gives you no mental satisfaction, and prone to frustrating mistakes. If students who like math think of it that way, how do you think the math haters gonna be. Me, for instance, although not a very accomplished Olympiad participant, am quite fond of math. I avoided statistics like plague, along with real analysis. Yet, although I looked at real Analysis with intimidation and fear, I admit I underestimate statistics a bit. I thought of it only as a matter of numbers and formulas and god it’s boring because I cannot see what I am doing.

Nonetheless, the blame is not on us the clueless child. The way statistics being taught traditionally focuses on the procedures and formulas, and fails to teach children to look at statistical problem holistically and derive meanings from it. This parochial way of learning apparently leads to misunderstanding and misconception in the adulthood. Some research actually reported a series of result from some psychological research that record how adult understand or misunderstand statistical ideas. This article also gives shorter illustration on how misinterpretation of statistical notion can be a disadvantage. Hence, the education stakeholders in some of the major countries in the world suggested reforming the aim of statistics education, which leads to the idea of statistical literacy. 

What is statistical literacy, you ask? I know, nice phrase isn’t it, I thought so too. Although there is no universal consensus about the definition of statistical literacy, Wallman (1993) gave a quite good definition of it which she wrote for the journal of American Statistical Association. Statistical literacy is “the ability to understand and critically evaluate statistical results that permeate our daily lives – coupled with the ability to appreciate the contribution that statistical thinking can make in public and private, as well as professional and personal decision.” 

Why is it important then? Well, one cannot deny that we live in a data and information laden world. Every day we are bombarded with percentage, census, polling result, graph and diagram, as well as sentences like “2 from 5 people choose Colgate” or “people with dilated pupils 77% more likely to be under influence of drugs”. Experts and advocates use statistics to strengthen their argument and to intimidate unknowing peasants. The misunderstanding and misconception I mentioned above shows quite clearly about how the failure in handling and being critical over information can affect us. Even if it does not do any harm, clearly grasping information better and knowing how to deal with it is needed for people to function efficiently as a citizen in society. Being statistically literate gives edge in personal and professional situation (mostly professional), for example impressing your employer or colleague. 

Now it is our responsibility as a teacher to create environment for students to learn statistics such a way that it is no longer a mere procedures, computation, and image, but also a way to make sense of the world.

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