Play and learning mathematics and statistics

The role of play in learning

I have been reading further about teaching mathematics and came across this interesting assertion:

Play, understood as something frivolous, opposed to work, off-task behaviour, is not welcomed into most mathematics classrooms. But play is exactly what is needed. It is only play that can entice us to the type of repetition that is needed to learn how to inhabit the mathematical landscape and how to create new mathematics.
Friesen(2000) – unpublished thesis, cited in Stordy, Children Count, (2015)

Play and practice

It is an appealing idea that as children play, they have opportunities to engage in repetition that is needed in mastering some mathematical skills. The other morning I decided to do some exploration of prime numbers and factorising even before I got out of bed. (Don’t judge me!). It was fun, and I discovered some interesting properties, and came up with a way of labelling numbers as having two, three and more dimensions. 12 is a three dimensional number, as is 20, whereas 35 and 77 are good examples of two dimensional numbers. As I was thus playing on my own, I was aware that it was practising my tables and honing my ability to think multiplicatively. In this instance the statement from Friesen made sense. I admit I’m not sure what it means to “create new mathematics”. Perhaps that is what I was doing with my 2 and 3 dimensional numbers.

You may be wondering what this has to do with teaching statistics to adults. Bear with…

Traditional vs recent teaching methods for mathematics

Today on Twitter, someone asked what to do when a student says that they like being shown what to do, and then practising on textbook examples. This is the traditional method for teaching mathematics, and is currently not seen as ideal among many maths teachers (particularly those who inhabit the MathTwitterBlogosphere or MTBoS, as it is called). There is strong support for a more investigative, socially constructed approach to learning and teaching mathematics.  I realise that as a learner, I was happy enough learning maths by being shown what to do and then practising. I suspect a large proportion of maths teachers also liked doing that. Khan Academy videos are wildly popular with many learners and far too many teachers because they perpetuate this procedural view of mathematics. So is the procedural approach wrong? I think what it comes down to is what we are trying to teach. Were I to teach mathematics again I would not use “show then practise” as my modus operandi. I would like to teach children to become mathematicians rather than mathematical technicians. For this reason, the philosophies and methods of Youcubed, Dan Meyer and other MTBoS bloggers have appeal.

Play and statistics

Now I want to turn my thoughts to statistics. Is there a need for more play in statistics? Can statistics be playful in the way that mathematics can be playful? Operations Research is just one game after another! Simulation, critical path, network analysis, travelling salesperson, knapsack problem? They are all big games. Probability is immensely playful, but what about statistical analysis? Can and should statistics be playful?

My first response is that there is no play in statistics. Statistics is serious and important, and deals with reality, not joyous abstract ideas like prime numbers and the Fibonacci series – and two and three dimensional numbers.

The excitement of a fresh set of data

But there is that frisson of excitement as you finally finish cleaning your database and a freshly minted set of variables and observations beckons to you, with SPSS, SAS or even Excel at your fingertips. A new set of data is a new journey of discovery. Of course a serious researcher has already worked out a methodical route through her hypotheses… maybe. Or do we mostly all fossick about looking for patterns and insights, growing more and more familiar with the feel of the data, as if we were squeezing it through our fingers? So yes – my experience of data exploration is playful. It is an adventure, with wrong turns, forgetting the path, starting again, finding something only to lose it again and finally saying “enough” and taking a break, not because the data has been exhausted, but because I am.

Writing the report is like cleaning up

Writing up statistical analysis is less exciting. It feels like picking up the gardening tools and putting them away after weeding the garden. Or cleaning the paintbrushes after creating a masterpiece. That was not one of my strengths – finishing and tidying up afterwards. The problem was that I felt I had finished when the original task had been completed – when the weeds had been pulled or the painting completed. In my view, cleaning and putting away the tools was an afterthought that dragged on after the completion of the task, and too often got ignored. Happily I have managed to change my behaviour by rethinking the nature of the weeding task. The weeding task is complete when the weeds are pulled and in the compost and the implements are resting clean and safe where they belong. Similarly a statistical analysis is not what comes before the report-writing, but is rather the whole process, ending when the report is complete, and the data is carefully stored away for another day. I wonder if that is the message we give our students – a thought for another post.

Can statistics be playful?

For I have not yet answered the question. Can statistics be playful in the way that mathematics can be playful? We want to embed play in order to make our task of repetition be more enjoyable, and learning statistics requires repetition, in order to develop skills and learn to differentiate the universal from the individual. One problem is that statistics can seem so serious. When we use databases about global warming, species extinction, cancer screening, crime detection, income discrepancies and similarly adult topics, it can seem almost blasphemous to be too playful about it.

I suspect that one reason our statistics videos on YouTube are so popular is because they are playful.


Helen has an attitude problem

Helen has a real attitude problem and hurls snarky comments at her brother, Luke. The apples fall in an odd way, and Dr Nic pops up in strange places. This playfulness keeps the audience engaged in a way that serious, grown up themes may not. This is why we invented Ear Pox in our video about Risk and screening, because being playful about cancer is inappropriate.

Ear Pox is imaginary disease for which we are studying the screening risk.

Ear Pox is imaginary disease for which we are studying the screening risk.

Dragonistics data cards provide light-hearted data which yields worth-while results.

A set of 240 Dragonistics data cards provides light-hearted data which yields satisfying results.

When I began this post I did not intend to bring it around to the videos and the Dragonistics data cards, but I have ended up there anyway. Maybe that is the appeal of the Dragonistics data cards –  that they avoid the gravitas of true and real grown-up data, and maintain a playfulness that is more engaging than reality. There is a truthiness about them – the two species – green and red dragons are different enough to present as different animal species, and the rules of danger and breath-type make sense. But students may happily play with the dragon cards without fear of ignorance or even irreverence of a real-life context.

What started me thinking about play with regards to learning maths and statistics is our Cat Maths cards. There are just so many ways to play with them that I can see Cat Maths cards playing an integral part in a junior primary classroom. This is why we created them and want them to make their way into classrooms. You can help by supporting our Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. Click the picture to pledge and get a box, provide a box for a school, or make a corporate donation.

We'd love your help.

We’d love your help.

Your thoughts about play and statistics

And maybe we need to be thinking a little more about the role of play in learning statistics – even for adults! What do you think? Can and should statistics be playful? And for what age group? Do you find statistical analysis fun?


One thought on “Play and learning mathematics and statistics

  1. I think it should. I teach statistics to MSc students in sociology, and quite a few of those assess themselves as not having strong capabilities when it comes to math, numbers and statistics.

    Humor, play and funny examples are important ways of overcoming that fear and showing them that these things are not scary, and they can actually do these things. They can usually do more than they actually think they can.

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