Friday math movie: Teach statistics before calculus!

By Murray Bourne, 11 Jan 2013

Michael Shermer, author of the book Secrets of Mental Math, suggests people should know how probability and statistics works, before they know about calculus.

Now, I love calculus, but I’m the first to agree it’s not so useful for most people down the track (good to know, for sure, but not necessarily essential). However, everyone should know how data is collected and analyzed, and how probability affects all our lives.

Do you agree with him?

An illustration

Here’s an ad that illustrates the point that statistics don’t lie - but advertisers are very good at “bending” data to suit their message…

This is one of the reasons why I believe Shermer is right - people need to understand statistics and how to interpret data for themselves, so they can see through the part-truths promulgated by vested interests.

2 Comments on “Friday math movie: Teach statistics before calculus!”

1. John Chase says:

I agree that statistics is more useful for 99% of kids than calculus.

But usefulness should not be the driving force behind secondary curriculum design, in my opinion. Teaching mathematical thinking is more important, and often teaching statistics feels more like ‘magic’ than mathematics as I argue in this recent blog post.

Professor Arthur Benjamin would probably agree with Shermer.

It IS true that lots of discrete probability and stat can can be taught, and justified, without the use of calculus. So I have no problem teaching that material prior to calculus. Continuous distributions, though, can only be justified with calculus.

2. Philip Petrov says:

I do not agree with him. Young people tend to prefer the “absolute solutions”. Try to explain to one small kid that “the solution is 1 or 2 apples”. Good luck. You’ll need it, because kids just won’t get it - they want to know which one is the “correct” one. They won’t accept that there can be “two correct solutions”.

Younger people expect straight, direct answers. That’s coming from their psychology. When you start to learn, say whatever you want - alphabet for example - you get “rules”. A “rule” is like “given this as data, this is the correct answer”.

When they grow older they start to get the feeling that “it may not be always absolute”. That’s the moment when they can understand probability and statistics.