Zero tolerance in Master plan for stats 'mystique'

20th February 2009 at 00:00
EU-funded course seeks to improve teachers' grasp of mathematical reasoning

Trainee teachers in Wales are about to find out if the much-quoted aphorism about "lies, damned lies and statistics" is true.

Along with number-crunching experts from across Europe, the University of Newport is encouraging teachers to question the "mystique" of statistics - especially in the media.

Lecturers hope the Master Project (mastering statistics and empirical results) will benefit children growing up in a world increasingly influenced by science and maths - and statistics in particular.

Dr Ronald Johnston, science programme leader at the university's school of education, said understanding statistics from a young age was crucial.

"Statistics are another way of interpreting the world around us," he said. "They have become such a major part of our lives in the media - in terms of medical, sociological and financial issues. But there are a lot of honest misconceptions about them."

The EU-funded project is open to anyone and has already received interest from school staff.

Trainee teachers studying for masters degrees at Newport are signed up to the courses. They will be taught to analyse newspaper articles and question the science and statistics behind them.

They will also learn to read graphs, understand percentages and judge whether research is based on reasonable facts. Welsh case studies will be used to bring the ideas closer to home.

Dr Johnston, who helped to develop the project, said better "statistical literacy" would inform many subjects at school.

For example, pupils taught about the risk of developing cancer as a result of smoking could benefit from understanding the truth behind the figures.

"There's a mystique attached to statistics," he said. "There's a reliance on statistics to convince people, and misconceptions occur.

"We want to help people to ask informed questions so that they can participate in debate about issues."

Unlike England, trainee teachers in Wales do not have to pass basic skills tests - including numeracy - to work in a school.

Dr Johnston admits there are "grey areas" in some teachers' subject knowledge. "I think it's something teachers should know, but there is a lot to learn on a training course," he said. "For some it will be new, and for others it will be a refresher."

He said lack of know-how in maths and statistics is not limited to Wales or the UK, but is Europe-wide. It was not necessary, he said, to be a mathematician in order to understand the concepts taught on the course, but basic numeracy is essential.

"You need to understand that data comes in different shapes and sizes," he said. "You need to know what the statistics we read are based on. Do we have a broad sample or a random sample?

"An association between two things does not mean there is a cause and effect. These ideas are very important."

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