Statistics For All High School Students?

A friend pointed me at this TED talk: Arthur Benjamin’s formula for changing math education.

In it a mathematics professor questions the assumption that after algebra and geometry students should take calculus. He specifically questions high school course sequences where calculus is presented as the final course in the sequence and all college-bound students are encouraged to take it. Instead he thinks we should strive to have all students complete a comprehensive statistics course before graduating high school.

I think he’s on to something. Statistics is more broadly applicable than calculus. In college, majors that require calculus (hard sciences, math, engineering, econ) also require a course in statistics. But majors that require statistics (psychology, sociology, education, nursing, etc) don’t usually require calculus. Outside of college statistics are everywhere from presidential approval ratings, to commercials, to standardized test scores.

In addition, I feel statistics is a lot more approachable in calculus. By high school most students have heard poll numbers on the news, they’ve talked about averages in reference to their grades, and have likely gambled a bit with friends. Teenagers are interested in concepts of popularity, ranking and differences between groups. All of these real life experiences can be related to stats and used to make the course both practical and fun. I wonder how many more students would do 3 or 4 years of high school math if it wasn’t all about “getting ready for calculus” and instead was learning about gambling, polling, and other things that were applicable to day to day life as an adult.

  • My first job (1983) after grad school (my degrees were in Physics and I studied Condensed Matter Theory – so I needed Calculus and a lot beyond that as well) was teaching in an independent secondary school in New England. The school had long had a requirement for a course in Probability and Statistics for all students. This was an excellent approach – especially when the school has a goal of enabling real mathematical discourse and wants to get students thinking mathematically and confident knowing when (and when not) to use mathematics as a tool to solve problems of interest to the student.

    This 20-week course was given in 11th Grade to all students emphasizing what’s now called “EDA” Exploratory Data Analysis (see or any books on EDA by David S. Moore of Purdue).

    Given that there are accessible tools whereby students can gather either physical data (“probes”) or social data (“surveys”) they can learn to propose and find (or not conclusively find) patterns in the data. Then students would have to present their conclusions to their peers and defend the ideas.

    BTW, some good toolsets for high school and younger kids to work with EDA is either Fathom Dynamic Data ( or TinkerPlots ( or InspireData ( There are many others (including Excel if you prefer), but these three are particularly suited for exploration by students.

  • Aja

    The 20-week course for all Juniors sounds like a great way to make sure that all students can intelligently interact with the statistics and claims they see in the real world.

    And thanks for the recommendation of the various software packages for exploring data with kids. I’d heard of TinkerPlots before but had forgotten about it. I’ll be sure to check all of them out.