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.