Statistics or Calculus? Do both!

January 20, 2013

(This article was originally published at Learn and Teach Statistics and Operations Research, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

This post is prompted by two 17 year old boys, Cam and Thomas, who are about to enter year 13, the final year of High school in New Zealand. They are both academically capable, with highly educated parents. And both boys are struggling with a dilemma – should they  take Calculus or Statistics at school this year. I suspect their maths teachers are pushing for calculus, whereas their parents appreciate the value of statistics.

Let’s take a look at the alternatives and see if we can help. (This makes no pretense of being a balanced view – that’s what comments are for!) Note that this is based on the New Zealand curriculum, which has a recently introduced strong emphasis on statistics. The assessment structure for this includes a full statistics subject in the final year for the first time in 2013. New Zealand is in the somewhat lonely position of leading the world in this area; statistical societies in other countries are watching. (And for you in the Northern Hemisphere who may be feeling confused, it is currently our summer holidays, and school starts back in early February.)

Take Calculus

Calculus is “proper” mathematics. It is elegant, and neat, and you get right answers. You don’t have to write sentences. Ever! Most of the problems are nice and theoretical, so you don’t have to deal with “word problems”. The teachers like Calculus, and fight over who gets to teach it. They feel confident in what they are doing. They have taught it for years and don’t need to do anything new. There are oceans of on-line videos, games and resources to help students. Khan academy videos are useful. But you don’t need to have access to the computer room to do calculus. Parents are more likely to know calculus (though well forgotten) than statistics. Calculus is needed for important subjects such as engineering, physics and… Hmm can’t think what else! Oh yes – more calculus. It is a good mental discipline that helps with problem-solving skills. It can be pretty fun if well taught. Besides people tell me that statistics is the easy option for people who can’t do calculus.

Take Statistics

Statistics relates to life. It is messy and often the answers aren’t clear, so interpretation and thinking are important. You will need to write reports and express yourself on paper. This will help you develop your critical thinking skills and communication skills. You have to understand contextual material such as biology, economics or sport.  Innovative teachers are excited about the changes in the curriculum, and are embracing the new material as an opportunity to learn and develop themselves as well as you.  As New Zealand is leading the world by introducing resampling, randomisation, bootstrapping and time series analysis at high school level, the on-line resources are few, but those extant (and in our pipeline) are focussed for your use.  Parents are not familiar with statistics, but will find what you are doing interesting.  You get to do most of your calculations on the computer, just as real statisticians do.  You will never find yourself asking “Why do we need to learn this?” because it is obvious how it is a part of your life. You will be better able to discern truth from lies on the internet. You will find yourself looking at the world differently.

Statistics is needed for many subjects: psychology, biology, engineering, management, marketing, medicine, sociology, education, geography, geology, law and journalism. It also widens the possibilities in the study of arts subjects such as History and English.

So which should Cam and Thomas take?

Here is our advice – all students who possibly can, should take statistics. Those who are planning to be engineers, physicists, maths teachers or statisticians (yes!) should take calculus as well. Simple really!

What about my own sons – the jazz pianist and the movie maker – what would I have advised them at this point? Statistics all the way. Neither one had use for calculus, nor the aptitude, but both would have benefited from statistics.

I’ll let you know what Cam and Thomas decided.

Please comment on the article here: Learn and Teach Statistics and Operations Research

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