Act your age not your shoe size

13th January 2006 at 00:00
Q I find statistics really boring, like a huge mountain to climb. I have returned to teaching after a long gap and have found there is now a much larger chunk of the syllabus dedicated to statistics (in my day it was treated as a separate GCSE!). When I did my teacher training statistics wasn't my strong point: analysing data involved pressing lots of buttons.

How can I, for example, make kids' heights and foot sizes interesting for my pupils?

A News Flash: "Size 8 footprint in the newly laid concrete at Alton Towers leads to girl's exclusion from school. Her friends, who were on the trip with her, say this particular pupil did not venture over to that side of the park during the visit."

I would suggest a statistical investigation which your pupils could explore using three different technologies, from which graphical analysis can be saved and incorporated into a report. For this purpose I approached three experts: Professor Neville Davies of The Royal Statistical Society Centre for Statistical Education; Douglas Butler, the inventor of Autograph, which contains an excellent, easy-to-use statistical package; and Stephen Kean from Casio for analysis using a graphical calculator. Their full contributions can be found at www.mathagonyaunt.co.uk along with 200 pieces of random pupil data from the East Midlands which was used in the analysis.

"Talking about kids' heights and foot size in isolation could be a bit dull, even though the data is real and collected from pupils' input responses," says Neville. Then he put forward a brilliant suggestion to bring it to life. One tack, he suggests, could be to ask pupils how they would try to decide which pupils in a school have left their footprints in newly-laid concrete in a corner of the playground. This could be set up as a problem they have to solve, leading to specifying and planning what they would have to do, collecting appropriate data, displaying and analysing the data in an appropriate way, drawing conclusions and maybe eventually solving the problem of whose footprints were found.

In this case, since we know that, for pupils at least, foot size can be used as a predictor for their height (see the scatter plot), data could be collected on (i) the actual foot size of the impressions in the concrete and (ii) pupils' heights in the school. The idea of narrowing down those that could have left their footprints based on looking at the scatterplot from Excel (the green version is from the graphical calculator) brings together all the ideas behind the data handling cycle (which the QCA specified long ago as the way all stats and data handling should be taught within GCSE maths).

An important part of any statistical investigation is writing an easily understood report. Perhaps the scenario could be a court case as I used at the beginning of my reply. One half could be the prosecution and one half could be the defence of a particular pupil. They will need to write the reports, make them accessible to either side and then present their evidence. I know that this is a technique used in English as a speaking and listening activity and could be incorporated as a cross-curricular exercise. Scenarios prepared with the English department would make this even more effective as well as making more time available for the activity.

The problem in school is that the computer suite or the laptops are not always available. This is where a graphical calculator is very useful, particularly as students can also take these home to play with the data. Graphical calculators can be used in school examinations (with the exception of the non-calculator paper), so used effectively a student conversant with the technology has a distinct advantage.

In your letter you mention the tedium of punching in numbers. With both graphic calculators, Autograph and Excel, data can be uploaded as files. So if for instance it has been collected in Excel then saved as a csv file it can easily be uploaded to the graphic calculator.

Further ideas:

* Data from other regions, countries www.censusatschool.org

* Information about the calculator used, email: education@casio.co.uk

* Information about Autograph (double BETT-award nominee) and their July courses www.tsm-resources.com

SOLUTIONS Threesomes (Ages 13 to16) 24-hour clock (Ages 8 to 11)

Wendy Fortescue-Hubbard is a teacher and game inventor. She has been awarded a three-year fellowship by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) to spread maths to the masses.

www.nesta.org.uk

Email your questions to Mathagony Aunt at teacher@tes.co.uk Or write to TES Teacher, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX

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