Forget Calculus. Learn Statistics. It's about data, stupid.

CJ Westerberg, June 10, 2013 5:28 PM


"Big data promises big things -
but only if we have people in place
who know what to do with it."

by C.J. Westerberg

As we've explored through numerous posts about the topic, why do we still cling to an antiquated math curriculum that follows the algebra, geometry, algebra II, trigonometry sequencing with calculus as the final holy grail?  Well, since higher education rules K-12 scaffolding, maybe as those ivory tower lords recognize that there's power - and pots of gold - in those data streams that statistics will become the value asset it deserves to be in this modern educational hierarchy. (I'm not talking about morality here, folks, just reality.)

Or maybe it takes fellows from the McKinsey Global Institute, James Manyika and Michael Chui, to frame the need for statistics as a more critical component of  a relevant and dynamic math education measuring it against the payback calculus brings by putting it into that "global competitiveness" context.  Corporate and government types - aka power brokers in education - love to use anything labelled global or competitive as the ultimate benchmark for validity in education.  Okay, that's fine if it will create the traction needed to make change in our paralyzed view of math curriculum.  Gutsy in a way, too, since calculus is always associated with engineering and we all know how much we need that with seemingly every education speech including the word "engineer" and not a peep about "data managers" or statisticians.   Understanding data is more a financial, political, cultural and literacy skill.  And it's very personal.

Manyika/Chui, as expected, first lay out how statistics help professions and businesses:

Consider the teams of medical researchers running clinical trials or analyzing the
outcomes of patients after a therapy has been made widely available: they have to select the parameters to study, assess the results, and draw the right conclusions about a drug's effectiveness and safety. Online advertisers trying to micro-target consumers must be able to detect patterns in the massive amount of clickstream data they gather from the Web. Risk managers on Wall Street, retail buyers choosing this season's merchandise, environmental scientists, sports analysts, and military strategists all rely on the ability to synthesize data and predict outcomes.

Next comes a dive into Moneyball territory (see video below), which did put a real face on being a data geek, courtesy of author Michael Lewis:

The key to making sense of all the data now at our disposal is statistics. At leading companies, decisions once driven by HiPPOs (the Highest-Paid Person's Opinion) are increasingly made by conducting experiments that draw on the core skills of statisticians. Rather than relying on gut instinct, businesses now find ways to test hypotheses and use statistical methods to analyze the results, applying the classic scientific method to decision-making.

In education, as educators are provided with more personalized learning tools and student analysis data (just take a look at the big news at SXSWedu  - the official introduction of InBloom, backed by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with partners as diverse as Dell and PBS), they better know what to do with it.  Sounds rather basic, doesn't it, but are teachers (and we aren't talking about math teachers) well-versed in data analysis and management? Is this a part of teacher education?  Another excerpt:

Big data promises big things - but only if we have people in place who know what to do with it. The United States has led the big data revolution but faces a shortage of the analytical and managerial talent needed to maximize its potential. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that the US will face a shortage of up to 190,000 professionals with advanced training in statistics and machine learning ("data scientists") within six years. But more broadly, another 1.5 million executives and analysts will need enough proficiency in statistics to work closely with data scientists to design experiments and make better decisions. As Google's chief economist Hal Varian put it, "the sexy job in the next 10 years will be statistician."

Cultivating those skills can start in the classroom. This year, some 361,000 US high school seniors took the Advanced Placement (AP) calculus exam, while fewer than half that number opted to take the AP statistics exam. There's no question that calculus offers valuable training in how to think and apply logic, and many of its concepts, such as rates of change, are certainly important.

But the actual use of calculus in the workforce is largely limited to fields such as physics and some engineering disciplines. By contrast, many of the fundamentals of statistics - conditional probabilities, sampling bias, and the distinction between correlation and causation, for example - are broadly useful to people as they make decisions in their roles as professionals, citizens, and even parents.

Some students hit a wall when they come up against calculus, finding it too abstract. Teachers can engage students in a tangible way with statistics, challenging them with real-world exercises like finding errors in reported studies, designing experiments to test hypotheses in the real world, or analyzing real data from the Web to determine what factors drive online behavior. Generating this kind of excitement earlier in a student's high school years might even build a stronger lifelong affinity for mathematics.

The post continues with the rise of statistician predictions such as those of Nate Silver which proved to be highly accurate has further fueled the need to slice through some of the noise and ability to slice through poorly conducted research and/or misleading statistics through the ability to analyze data.

In a world where uncertainty is the only certainty, there is a growing need to transform massive troves of data into information that produces better decision-making. But if schools cling to their old curriculum, the US economy may come up short. Just do the math.

Do check out the Moneyball clip below - --

James Manyika is the San Francisco-based director of the McKinsey Global Institute, where Michael Chui is a principal and senior fellow.
Read full post: MBAs Can't Afford to End Their Math Education with Calculus
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