Statistics lessons aren’t just for math class anymore, and early-education experts are finding new reasons and ways to incorporate these topics in the early grades.
“All students should be taught at least basic statistics,” said Ginger Rae Lynn Wilson, a 3rd grade teacher in Griffin, Ga. “You hear so much talk about STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] and making sure our children are competitive globally; well, I don’t know how they would be competitive in a global sense if they don’t know how to interpret information and compute data.”
From understanding economic changes to deciding whether or not to believe a political poll, statistics have gained a higher profile lately—but it’s not certain most American students understand them.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, asks 4th graders to determine the chart that best fits certain data or to explain how an outlier will affect an analysis of data. It also may ask 8th graders to determine probabilities or use a chart to identify an incorrect statement. According to NAEP data, 4th graders’ average scale score in statistics and data topics fell significantly, from 241 in 2005 to 238 in 2015, on a scale of 500. Performance by 12th graders in statistics was flat during the same time.
That’s a problem, because in the world beyond school, statistics is booming. Statistical jobs are among the top-10 fastest-growing occupations and are expected to continueto be through 2024, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And fields from health and science to journalism and psychology increasingly require understanding of statistics.
The Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by a majority of states, change the typical approach to teaching statistics, which traditionally has been in a “data and measurement” unit in most elementary school grades. The common core moves formal introduction to probability up to middle school, narrowing the elementary focus for statistics considerably.
Denise Spangler, a professor in early-childhood math education at the University of Georgia, approves of the change. “It used to be taught in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and in high school, and you still got kids in college who didn’t understand it. … But what underlies probability is randomness, and that’s a very difficult concept to understand—even for adults,” Spangler said. Students need to build a solid foundation of how data can be collected and categorized before looking at formal probability, she said.
Projected percent change in employment among statisticians and math science occupations.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections Program
While revised common-core math standards also move the introduction of formal statistical concepts like finding a mode or median to middle school, instruction in collecting, organizing, and describing data is in some ways more frequent in the lower grades now, as nonfiction reading and science studies also ask students to make sense of graphs and data at younger ages. Similarly, the Next Generation Science Standards call for deeper “quantitative literacy,” involving data analysis and statistics in the course of learning other concepts.
Wilson, who has previously taught kindergarten and 2nd grade, said she has found it helpful to give students exposure to graphs and data collection across a broader variety of subjects.
“That was something that was a mistake early on in my teaching, that I had a separate unit on data and graphing, and then we never touched it again,” Wilson said. “Instead, now it’s sprinkled into each unit, so it’s relevant for whatever else you are doing. I’ve found more success in the topic when it’s purpose-driven. If you teach it in connection to other mathematics or science, you have better understanding and better achievement. They are really investigating data to recognize trends.”
Tightening the focus on statistics in the early grades should give teachers room to help their students think more critically about the subject, rather than relegating it to “the last two weeks of the year—if I have time,” said Beth Chance, a statistics professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.
Statistics can confuse students by inverting their concept of how math works, Chance said: “Traditionally, a lot of math is taught as, ‘Follow the rules, get a number you can check at the back of the book.’ Statistics are all about context, about getting students to think, ‘Is this a reasonable answer?’ and then justify it. It’s getting students to think of how the answer would change in different contexts.”
Spangler points to one common 1st grade activity, asking students to make a chart of their classmates’ shoes. Counting and charting the various sneakers and loafers and identifying the most common type is a good start, but “making a bar graph in class is a really time-consuming process, so we are trying to get teachers to get more out of it once we have it,” Spangler said.
“Often what happens is the teacher has already decided what the question is going to be, and one of the most important things is to understand there are a lot of concepts taught by letting the students formulate their own questions,” she said. “What do we want to ask? How do we define this to minimize errors?”
Chance and Spangler both recommended that teachers ask their students to spend more time analyzing data once they have it. With regard to the shoe survey, for example, Spangler said, “Often, teachers stop with ‘what is the most popular kind of shoe in the class.’ But teachers can engage kids to ask more questions about the data: ‘Do you think we would get the same results if we took this survey in the second week of January or just before summer? Would students in Japan have the same results? How could we find out?’ Getting kids to think about why the data looks this way gets at the idea of variability.”
Data collection and graphing can help students understand concepts like grouping and the importance of defining scales, which also are helpful in later algebra and geometry. “The statistical ideas can give the mathematical ideas the context for understanding,” Chance said. “Not everybody needs calculus; they need mathematical reasoning.”
Coverage of early-math education is supported in part by a grant from the CME Group Foundation, at www.cmegroupfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 2017 edition of Education Week as Statistics Lessons Get New Life