Understanding Statistics

Dear Colleague,

In a world where there is an ever increasing level of interconnectedness and access to information, every Canadian needs to know how to critically, and with skepticism, interpret the information that they are being bombarded with on a daily basis. Two aspects of this include the ability to understand and interpret statistics that are presented to Canadians, as well as the ability to access and wade through information on their own online in the form of digital literacy.

Canadians are inundated with information and statistics in a myriad of forms in their day to day lives. Statistics are presented in the form of the efficacy of products for sale, such as the effectiveness of skin care treatments or weight loss supplements, and also in the form of incredibly significant topics such as climate change or the effects of vaccinations on children’s health. Canadians need to learn to effectively interpret these statistics, by learning about concepts such as sample size of a study, the effect size of a given result, correlation vs. causation, and the need for replication of results. Canadians need to make informed decisions regarding products or ideas which they are confronted with, whether it concerns something as benign as the preference and effectiveness of a toothbrush, to potentially life-altering decisions such as choosing not to have their children vaccinated due to misinformed consumption of information regarding the “harmful” effects of this practice. The inclusion of practicing and understanding statistics is not limited to a math classroom. These topics can be introduced when interpreting the statistics of any subject area, from the significance of difference between treatment and control groups in a science experiment, to the effects and nutritional value of certain vitamins or molecules in foods in a home economics course. It is critical, especially in science courses, to communicate what is knowledge, which is evidence-based, against what is simply belief, as it is central the understanding the nature of science (Smith & Siegel, 2004). It is imperative that “knowledge” be reinforced by evidence, which is often in the form of statistics, particularly in science classrooms.

During my practicum, I was lucky enough to be working with students on their science fair projects. For many students, this was their first lengthy foray into developing a research question, gathering data, and conducting (rudimentary) statistical analyses on that data. Many students, at multiple grade levels, were unsure of how to approach and interpret statistics. Terms like “significantly different” were murky, and the idea of an “effect size” was either poorly or not understood at all.

Providing Canadians the tools to examine statistics will allow them to form their own informed conclusions when coming across data, or in doing their own statistical analyses, which will help them adapt to today’s information climate.

Sincerely,

Randip Gill

References

Smith, M. U. & Siegel, H. (2004). Knowing, believing, and understanding: What goals for science education? Science & Education, 13(6), 553-582.

 

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