The nature of mathematics and statistics and what it means to learn and teach them

I’ve been thinking lately….

Sometimes it pays to stop and think. I have been reading a recent textbook for mathematics teachers, Dianne Siemon et al, Teaching mathematics: foundations to middle years (2011). On page 47 the authors asked me to “Take a few minutes to write down your own views about the nature of mathematics, mathematics learning and mathematics teaching.” And bearing in mind I see statistics as related to, but not enclosed by mathematics, I decided to do the same for statistics as well. So here are my thoughts:

The nature of mathematics

Mathematicians love the elegance of mathematics

Mathematicians love the elegance of mathematics

Mathematics is a way of modelling and making sense of the world. Mathematics underpins scientific and commercial endeavours as well as everyday life. Mathematics is about patterns and proofs and problem structuring and solution finding. I used to think it was all about the answer, but now I think it is more about the process. I used to think that maths was predominantly an individual endeavour, but now I can see how there is a social or community aspect as well. I fear that too often students are getting a parsimonious view of mathematics, thinking it is only about numbers, and something they have to do on their own. I find my understanding of the nature of mathematics is rapidly changing as I participate in mathematics education at different ages and stages. I have also been influenced by the work of Jo Boaler.

To learn mathematics

My original idea of mathematics learning comes from my own successful experience of copying down notes from the board, listening to the teacher and doing the exercises in the textbook. I was not particularly fluent with my times-tables, but loved problem-solving. If I got something wrong, I was happy to try again until I nutted it out. Sometimes I even did recreational maths, like the time I enumerated all possible dice combinations in Risk to find out who had the advantage – attacker or defender. I always knew that it took practice to be good at mathematics. However I never really thought of mathematics as a social endeavour. I feel I missed out, now. From time to time I do have mathematical discussions with my colleague. It was an adventure inventing Rogo and then working out a solution method. Mathematics can be a social activity.

To teach mathematics

When I became a maths teacher I perpetuated the method that had worked for me, as I had not been challenged to think differently. I did like the ideas of mastery learning and personalised system of instruction. This meant that learners progressed to the next step only when they had mastered the previous one. I was a successful enough teacher and enjoyed my work.

Then as a university lecturer I had to work differently, and experimented. I had a popular personalised system of instruction quantitative methods course, relying totally on students working individually, at their own pace. I am happy that many of my students were successful in an area they had previously thought out of their reach. For some students it was the only subject they passed.

What I would do now

If I were to teach mathematics at school level again, I hope I would do things differently. I love the idea of “Number talks” and rich tasks which get students to think about different ways of doing things. I had often felt sad that there did not seem to be much opportunity to have discussions in maths, as things were either right or wrong. Now I see what fun we could have with open-ended tasks. Maths learning should be communal and loud and exciting, not solitary, quiet and routine. I have been largely constructivist in my teaching philosophy, but now I would like to try out social constructivist thinking.

Statistics

And what about statistics? At school in the 1970s I never learned more than the summary statistics and basic probability. At uni level it was bewildering, but I managed to get an A grade in a first year paper without understanding any of the basic principles. It wasn’t until I was doing my honours year in Operations Research and was working as a tutor in Statistical methods that things stared to come together – but even then I was not at home with statistical ideas and was happy to leave them behind when I graduated.

The nature of statistics

Statistics lives in the real world

Statistics lives in the real world

My views now on the nature of statistics are quite different. I believe statistical thinking is related to mathematical thinking, but with less certainty and more mess. Statistics is about models of reality, based on imperfect and incomplete data. Much of statistics is a “best guess” backed up by probability theory. And statistics is SO important to empowered citizenship. There are wonderful opportunities for discussion in statistics classes. I had a fun experience recently with a bunch of Year 13 Scholarship students in the Waikato. We had collected data from the students, having asked them to interpret a bar chart and a pie chart. There were some outliers in the data and I got them to suggest what we should do about them. There were several good suggestions and I let them discuss for a while then moved on. One asked me what the answer was and I said I really couldn’t say – any one of their suggestions was valid. It was a good teaching and learning moment. Statistics is full of multiple good answers, and often no single, clearly correct, answer.

Learning statistics

My popular Quantitative Methods for Business course was developed on the premise that learning statistics requires repeated exposure to similar analyses of multiple contexts. In the final module, students did many, many hypothesis tests, in the hope that it would gradually fall into place. That is what worked for me, and it did seem to work for many of the students. I think that is not a particularly bad way to learn statistics. But there are possibly better ways.

I do like experiential learning, and statistics is perfect for real life experiences. Perhaps the ideal way to learn statistics is by performing an investigation from start to finish, guided by a knowledgeable tutor. I say perhaps, because I have reservations about whether that is effective use of time. I wrote a blog post previously, suggesting that students need exposure to multiple examples in order to know what in the study is universal and what applies only to that particular context. So perhaps that is why students at school should be doing an investigation each year within a different context.

The nature of understanding

This does beg the question of what it means to learn or to understand anything. I hesitate to claim full understanding. Of anything. Understanding is progressive and multi-faceted and functional. As we use a technique we understand it more, such as hypothesis testing or linear programming. Understanding is progressive. My favourite quote about understanding is from Moore and Cobb, that “Mathematical understanding is not the only understanding.” I do not understand the normal distribution because I can read the Gaussian formula. I understand it from using it, and in a different way from a person who can derive it. In this way my understanding is functional. I have no need to be able to derive the Gaussian function for what I do, and the nature and level of my understanding of the normal distribution, or multiple regression, or bootstrapping is sufficient for me, for now.

Teaching statistics

I believe our StatsLC videos do help students to understand and learn statistics. I have put a lot of work into those explanations, and have received overwhelmingly positive feedback about the videos. However, that is no guarantee, as Khan Academy videos get almost sycophantic praise and I know that there are plenty of examples of poor pedagogy and even error in them. I have recently been reading from “Make it Stick”, which summarises theory based on experimental research on how people learn for recall and retention. I was delighted to find that the method we had happened upon in our little online quizzes was promoted as an effective method of reinforcing learning.

Your thoughts

This has been an enlightening exercise, and I recommend it to anyone teaching in mathematics or statistics. Read the first few chapters of a contemporary text on how to teach mathematics. Dianne Siemon et al, Teaching mathematics: foundations to middle years (2011) did it for me. Then “take a few minutes to write down your own views about the nature of mathematics, mathematics learning and mathematics teaching.” To which I add my own suggestion to think about the nature of statistics or operations research. Who knows what you will find out. Maybe you could put a few of your ideas down in the comments.

 

5 thoughts on “The nature of mathematics and statistics and what it means to learn and teach them

  1. Dear Dr. Nic I have taken the liberty to extent you nice description of statistics, It goes like this

    Partly from dr. Nic
    https://learnandteachstatistics.wordpress.com/2016/09/06/philosophical_thoughts/
    I believe statistical thinking is related to mathematical thinking, but with less certainty and more mess. Statistics is about wrong but useful models of reality, based on imperfect and incomplete data. Statistics is not an exact science but “best guesses” backed up by probability theory. And statistics is SO important to summarize biological phenomena, because biology is not an exact science either. Statistics is full of multiple good answers, and often no single, clearly correct, answer.

    You nicely describe many problem we encounter with students and professionals who feel that statistics is a necessary evil. But they forget that the success of agriculture, to feed the world, were and are build on statistics

  2. Any thought can be decomposed in two, a deductive and an inductive part. Mathematics is the language of deduction. The study of the absolute in this world, the logical implications which has to be true. Or untrue.

    Well, arguably its not “part” of this world – since its purely abstract. This is what happens when the exercises says take a few minutes, instead of “take a day”.

    Statistics is the absolute part of the uncertain, the inductive. Statistical theory that is. Analysis is decomposing. Even the seemingly chaotic will have an element which can be pinned down in a formal way. Once again, its not necessarily about the world as it is – merely how we try to understand it.

  3. Pingback: Talking in class: improving discussion in maths and stats classes | Learn and Teach Statistics and Operations Research

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