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19th May 2000 at 01:00
The Eurovision Song Contest and other celebrity competitions can inspire lessons on data handling, says Jenny Houssart

Last Saturday millions watched the Eurovision song contest. I avoided the songs but followed the voting. I love Eurovision voting because it reminds me of primary data handling lessons. Both have an enthusiastic, sometimes chaotic, approach to vote counting, the possibility of mistakes, and biased voting. Eurovision has waned in popularity in recent years - the same is true of data handling. The reduction in data handling at key stage 2 will be official when the new national curriculum is introduced. Evaluation of the early stages of the numeracy strategy already carries a hint that data handling may be squeezed out by number work.

Data handling certainly has a place in the framework for teaching maths, though it seems the writers feared that it would consume too much time. It is rarely mentioned without the word "quickly". This raises the question of whether time taken over data collection is necessarily wasted. We know about trips round the class or even the whole school asking everyone to nominate their favourite television programme, stopping only to discuss the past few episodes and starting the whole process again if you happen to lose count. Hardly the best use of a maths lesson. But what of the time taken when categories and rules are defined? Such difficulties of definition are crucial and to remove or gloss over them to save time may be detrimental in the long term.

Data collection is of course only one stage of the process. It is little use collecting and representing data unless it is interpreted. Another possibility here is that children will analyse and interpret data collected by others.

Eurovision votes are one possibility with questions including: Who votes for whom? Do songs in particular languages do better? Is it better to be the last performer? What percentage of the possible votes did the winning song get?

Similar sources of data include the Top Ten, Oscar and Bafta winners, film reviews and ratings. Children may be interested in staging their own contest for favourite film or song. There is plenty of maths involved in deciding on the voting process. Do children vote for just one favourite, or can they award points to several in descending order, Eurovision-style? Should you take account of particular dislikes or the fact that many of the class may have not heard all the songs concerned or seenall the films?

However well designed your voting system, you cannot rule out biased voting. Eurovision voting is legendary - some countries vote for each other however awful the song. This often happens in primary classrooms, with various groups agreeing to vote alike. Another familiar phenomenon in classrooms is that almost all data handling can be seen as competitive - and winning is all. Thus a survey on car colours might conclude with the phrase "the reds have won", while children doing a survey on litter on pavements have been heard to say: "I'm supporting cigarette ends, who do you want to win?" This underlines the need for a variety of data-handling activities: votes and selections of favourites are just one possible approach. Variation in the language used to discuss the results can also move children away from seeing everything as a competition. This is reflected in the numeracy framework, where the alternative phrases "most popular" and "most common" are introduced first, followed by the more mathematical "mode".

Such ideas are a little too sophisticated for the Eurovision organisers, who have the practical problem of co-ordinating vote collection. As votes are collected tension mounts and suddenly everyone is doing maths. Calculating and predicting come first, as running totals have scores such as 12, 10, eight or fewer points added, and "nul points" as an ignominious possibility. Fortunately there is a scrutineer at Eurovision, to check votes cast and totals. Teachers will be familiar with this idea, having frequently checked totals to ensure everyone has been counted once only.

There is probability in the vote counting process, too, as we hear what is possible, what is likely and even what is "mathematically possible", a phrase I take to mean "we don't expect it to happen". In Eurovision, as in classrooms, data handling does not stand alone, but brings opportunities for discussing probability, predicting and calculating.

So why is data handling going out of fashion? Support for Eurovision tends to wane here if the United Kingdom has been short of recent victories. The opposite is the case with data handling. We do relatively well at it in international comparisons, something which has received less publicity than our areas of weakness. It seems the best news, like the best songs, does not always get the most publicity.

Jenny Houssart is research fellow at the Open University's Centre for Mathematics Education

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