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A Resources special: New year, new start - Statistics doesn't have to be murder

Turning detective can breathe life into the way we use data across subjects, argues Neville Davies

Turning detective can breathe life into the way we use data across subjects, argues Neville Davies

The open office door reveals a scene of complete devastation: books, papers, files and computers lie strewn across the floor. The desk is empty but for a man's body, sprawling face down, with what appears to be a bullet hole in his head. A hand-written note is pinned to his back. There is a muddy footprint on the floor. Now it is the job of crime scene investigators to look at the data and information to try to decide precisely what has happened.

This is a typical scene as portrayed in the popular television series Crime Scene Investigation (CSI). The team must collect data and evidence, process it, and conclude whom the villains are. At every turn they are likely to be foiled by the crafty manoeuvres of suspects, forcing them to take a new direction of enquiry to nab the criminal.

Being a CSI investigator requires a broad range of knowledge and skills, including the ability to use technology, a feel for numbers, an appreciation of appropriate levels of accuracy, knowledge of maths and the making of sensible estimates. Investigators must also take a common-sense approach to how they use the information, be aware of the variety of ways they could interpret evidence and be able to draw trustworthy and valid conclusions.

But how does this bear any relation to the way we learn statistics in schools? And should it? In fact, the most exciting way to get to grips with teaching and learning statistics is to follow the CSI template and treat the subject as a detection problem involving investigation of real-life data. You might, for example, set up a lesson where a theft has allegedly occurred and the only clue is a footprint. Pupils must calculate how that footprint might help them to catch the thief. They will use averages as well as histograms and scatter diagrams to explore which of various suspects is likely to be the culprit.

Since statistics started to be taught in schools in the 1950s it has been regarded as part of maths, but is not considered to be "proper" maths and is often taught in a correspondingly negative way. Research by the Royal Statistical Society Centre for Statistical Education (RSSCSE) in 2006 showed that about 30 per cent of heads of maths felt "not fully confident" about teaching KS3 statistics.

Other maths teachers have quietly considered statistics to be "a bit of a nuisance". This has been a self- perpetuating cycle, first communicated to school-aged learners, who in turn go to university and train to become maths teachers and return to the classroom with the "nuisance" factor embedded in their minds.

Yet statistics and data are more important than ever: data are numbers in context and they are everywhere. And just as in CSI investigations, using statistics in context is key. So we should start our future journeys into the subject with context and not maths. Our future in the 21st century is with data, and while we may need to use maths to help get to grips with problems, it should not be the master of our approach.

In this, the International Year of Statistics (Statistics2013), the Royal Statistical Society is well into its third year of a 10-year campaign, Getstats (, that aims to improve everyone's relationship with the numbers we love to hate. It offers ways to interpret statistics, numbers and data that help us to make sense of the world around us. This all starts in schools. So we should look forward and use an investigative approach, using technology and the glue that binds all other subjects to statistics: data.

The cognitive skills necessary to do statistics using a data- investigation approach are broad and go far beyond the realm of simple maths. Indeed, they are cross-curricular. Data can be messy, even dirty, and collecting data needs careful thought and planning; thinking skills that go far beyond maths. And this includes the use of computing and ICT.

The best way of doing this is to get school-aged learners to become data investigators, or problem-solvers. They need to be helped through four stages of planning, collecting data, processing and discussing (and perhaps revisiting the planning stage). Using statistics across a range of subjects and studying real data of a kind that they can relate to provide sure-fire ways to motivate pupils. These give them a meaningful reason for learning statistics.

A rich source of real data is available through the RSSCSE's international CensusAtSchool project ( Nine countries contribute to this and it offers free access to a wide range of statistics teaching and learning resources. It also includes a database of more than 2.5 million responses to questions posed to learners in those countries over the past 12 years.

One of these countries is New Zealand, where a group of educators designed, wrote and implemented a 21st-century curriculum for statistics and maths. Learners are encouraged to be data "detectives" and solve problems that use real data from CensusAtSchool New Zealand. (For example, pupils can investigate whether Leonardo da Vinci's theory that a person's height is equal to their arm span is true for New Zealand students.)

This year, through Statistics2013, countries around the world will promote the importance of statistics to the broader scientific community, business and government data users, the media, policymakers, employers, pupils and the general public. But we already know statistics are important. The challenge is to make them exciting to young people.

Neville Davies is professor of statistical education and director of the Royal Statistical Society Centre for Statistical Education at Plymouth University. He has taught and conducted research in statistics for many years and is keen to promote statistical literacy in schools.


Key stage 1: Graph generator

Enter data into Steveabey's Excel spreadsheet and watch it automatically create a graph.


Key stage 2: Handling data

Try this project from the Royal Statistical Society to introduce pupils to data handling.


Key stage 3: CSI maths

TES maths panel member Laura Rees Hughes has shared several CSI-style lessons to improve pupils' problem-solving skills.


Key stage 4: Statistics revision

Refresh pupils' knowledge of statistics and probability, and prepare them for their exams, with TES maths adviser Craig Barton's collection of revision notes.


Key stage 5: Who's who of statistics

Introduce pupils to the famous faces of statistics with another resource from the Royal Statistical Society.


What else?

Turn data detective on Leonardo da Vinci's theory that a person's height is equal to their arm span.


Use this resource to set your class to work, hunting down a thief.


Try a data investigation that uses the distances that your pupils travel to school.


"Knock, Knock, Bang", an introduction to tree diagrams and probability, is based on a challenge from Japanese game show Takeshi's Castle.


In "How Old is Your Height?" pupils are asked to compare the heights of children today with those in 1837.


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