The art of teaching statistics to teenagers

22 August 2017

“Teenagers,” says former high school statistics teacher Anna Fergusson, “are interested mostly in themselves. So if you want to get them into statistics, find contexts based on things they are into.” She’s done that to an impressive degree, compiling teacher resources on her blog Teaching Statistics is Awesome that reflect what kids are into – their pets, their phones, sport, memes, and clips from the internet. Anna, now a Professional Teaching Fellow in the Department of Statistics, is now doing her PhD, which explores accessible ways to introduce school students to what she calls “the modern art and science of learning from data”.

Statistics, Anna says, has always been about learning from data and making decisions in the face of uncertainty. But the rapid pace of technological change means data sources are changing – data isn’t just from tables anymore; it’s the hashtags used on social media, the activities captured by a fitness tracker and the comments made about the latest viral video. Data analysis is also changing. For example, students might want to use digital photos as part of a statistical investigation, so they need to learn how to represent features of images as data.

“We know that learning from modern data requires skills such as data wrangling, data visualisation, and coding,” Anna explains. “So as well as developing skill-based learning, we also need to develop students’ statistical and computational thinking. But what kind of learning experiences will help us to do this with school-level students, in ways that are inclusive and keep statistics as a subject open and accessible to all? That’s hopefully what I will be able to find out.” Anna’s research is supervised by Maxine Pfannkuch, Chris Wild and Stephanie Budgett.

Anna was the Director of Mathematics and Statistics at Avondale College before joining the Department of Statistics in 2015. So what was the major lesson she brought from the classroom to the university? “Context is super-important, but so is good pedagogy,” she says. “Learning statistics can’t be just about learning rules, methods and procedures, and producing graphs or outputs, answers and written reports.”

Statistics teachers need to be able to “help students appreciate the world beyond the classroom, to see how they are connected to what is going on in the world, or how they could be connected, and to learn about the power of statistics in shaping what happens in the world.”

Anna adds that teachers “should always have high expectations of what teenagers can learn and communicate – all teenagers can produce amazingly statistically insightful work”.

Anna enjoyed maths as a child, but she thinks it was her love of music that fostered her interest in statistics – she has a bachelor of music as well as science degrees. “All music has some sort of structure sitting behind it, but the beauty of music is in the variation,” she says. “When you learn music, you learn about key ideas and structures, but then you get to hear how these same key ideas and structures can be used to produce so many different-sounding works of art.

“This is how I think we need to help students learn statistics – minimal structure, optimal transfer, maximal experience. Imagine how boring it would be if students learning music only ever listened to Bach.”