Covid statistics reveal gaps in students' mathematics skills

More needs to be done to teach students how to critically interpret statistics such as those published during the Covid pandemic, an Australian Catholic University researcher has warned.

While welcoming changes to the Australian mathematics curriculum, Professor of Mathematics Education Vincent Geiger said professional learning opportunities for teachers and changes to teaching practices and resources used in the classroom were needed to ensure students grew into adults capable of understanding and interpreting data and associated graphics.

“There needs to be more focus on interpreting authentic uses of mathematics and statistics in real world contexts such as Australian Bureau of Statistics data, rather than contrived tasks such as word problems,” he said.

“There also needs to be greater focus on how to make decisions based on mathematical and statistical evidence. Young people need the capability to critically scrutinise material they read – including that which contains claims, opinions and arguments backed by data.”

Professor Geiger, of the Institute for Learning Sciences and Teacher Education, has published a study looking at the demands of the statistical and mathematical products (STaMPs) used by media in Australia, the UK, USA, and Israel during the pandemic.

The research, published in the journal Educational Studies in Mathematics, identified nine categories of STaMPs: descriptive quantitative information, models, predictions, causality and risk, representations and displays, data quality and strength of evidence, demographics and comparative thinking, heterogeneity and contextual factors, literacy and language demands, multiple information sources, and critical demands.

Professor Geiger, who completed the research with Associate Professor Iddo Gal of Israel’s University of Haifa, said unless key capabilities were addressed at school, there was a real danger that students would grow up to be adults at risk of accepting ‘fake’ news.

“Did people really understand what the R index represented? What does flattening the curve actually mean? Did people understand that predictions changed because of an increase in the amount of data and its quality, not because conditions were necessarily changing,” he said.

“STaMPs are often presented in the media without enough additional information for a reader to effectively scrutinise claims. This means they need to bring their own knowledge and experience to bear on arguments and opinions expressed in the media. If young people and adults understand STaMPs, they can also be more demanding about accountable practices in the media.

“Without the capacity to scrutinise the use of STaMPs in a critical way, citizens may accept any statements or claims in the media at face value. This leaves them vulnerable to having their opinions shaped by political influences rather than using evidence to make decisions in relation to personal, civic and work life.”

Professor Geiger said educational programs needed to go beyond simple and abstract notions of probability to evaluate the meaning and strength of data and incorporate greater understanding of the concepts of vagueness, uncertainty, and risk.

“Within school mathematics curricula, statistics are often taught as a separate topic from mathematics, yet in the media items, these knowledge bases are often intertwined or blended,” he said.

“The need to be competent with blended knowledge was particularly apparent in items that included discussion about technically complex issues, such as the use of modelling to justify claims related to prediction, causality and risk.

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