Pressing Toward the Prize

The Top of the Pyramid: Calculus or Statistics?

Posted on: September 20, 2010

I was recently discussing with my math professor and a fellow student the relevance, or lack thereof, of current math courses to high school students. When I commented I wasn’t sure if it was the relevance of the courses, or the marketing of those courses, that was the problem, my professor directed me to a video of a talk given by another math professor, Arthur Benjamin. In it he explains why he feels that making calculus the pinnacle of the high school math curriculum is not the best, and that students (and society) would be better served if learning probability and statistics was the zenith. He does not minimize the value of calculus for certain students, but he feels it is not relevant to our everyday lives in the way that probability and statistics are.

After taking my first statistics course, I was so impressed by the relevance of the material that I began to believe, and still do, that everyone in America should know statistics. If followed, Professor Benjamin’s “formula for changing math education” would make that possible. We are so inundated in our culture with facts, figures, and persuasive techniques involving statistics (think sports, politics, lotteries, advertising), that one needs to be able to sift through the rhetoric in order to recognize the reality. If one more fully understands the data being presented, one can make more informed decisions. It would seem, then, that I have had to re-think my position on high school math in favor of changing the current course offerings and emphasis to bring more relevance to our students. And as Professor Benjamin points out, probability and statistics involve uncertainty and risk, which are clearly relevant to our everyday lives.

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3 Responses to "The Top of the Pyramid: Calculus or Statistics?"

This is particularly interesting to me because in high school I took Calculus before Statistics. I also happened to enjoy Statistics quite a bit more.

It would also be interesting to make Calculus of prerequisite for Statistics, because as we all know, Calculus is used in Statistics, and is necessary for some higher level stuff.

This is interesting indeed. In response to Kyle’s comment, the problem of making calculus a prereq for stats is that many students then won’t be able to take stats (most people never take or see calculus) but they really should have the sense to understand some stats. This is the point that Dr. Benjamin is making. One problem though is how to answer interesting statistics problems for high school students without knowing calculus…

I know for a fact that statistics could be taught without taking any higher level math class (calculus) because Pierce College offers statistics with only passing Math 098. I would love to see statistics taught in high school as a basic statistics class. If a student would like to follow up in the field then they can take the class in college. The class could be a one semester math class that is a basic level class.

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