cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

How Stats Bootcamp Saved My Life — #TMC13

I am trying to make sure I do ten- to fifteen-minute daily writing practices on my session- and topic write-ups from Twitter Math Camp '13 because otherwise I won't end up doing them and I made a promise to myself to try and capture the essence of what was important to me.

Hedge's Statistics Bootcamp session was particularly life-changing for me, primarily in that it saved my life. The CCSS Math 8 standards now require a juicy unit on statistics and probability, which are not my personal strong suit. The truth is, I spent so many years in high-tech marketing I no longer believed in the power of statistics to do anything more than be distorted for various nefarious purposes.

So it was good to go all the way back to the ground and to return to the way of beginner's mind. The term "beginner's mind" caught on due to one of the foundational texts of North American Zen practice, which is Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. If you have not read this, it will teach you everything you need to know about what I find valuable in classroom management (SPOILER ALERT: you will be reading about how "the way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous. To give your sheep or cows a wide field to wander in is the best way to control them. Then they will be in control in a wider sense"). The key to Zen practice — and to math teaching practice — is always to keep your beginner's mind. As Suzuki Roshi says, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind, there are few."

Hedge teaches statistics using what I might call the case method on steroids. She opens with the story of a notorious serial murder trial — a trial that hinged on statistical analysis and interpretation of mortality rates and patterns of nurses' shifts in the VA hospital where the defendant worked. I would describe her Essential Question for the unit as, "How certain is certain enough in matters of life and death decisions?" Revealing one critical piece of statistical evidence after another, she guided our investigation and conversations through the key pieces of evidence in the trial.

One of the things I love best about blogs and Twitter Math Camp is that they give me a chance to experience the art of "the reveal" — more specifically, how other teachers handle "reveals" in their classrooms. Over the years, I have stolen adopted many of Sam's techniques for building reveals into his artful guided student investigation worksheets. Hedge handles reveals by demanding self-restraint. In this lesson, she provided each group with  three large manila envelopes labeled A, B, and C, and she starts class with her norms and consequences — namely, that you don't open anything until HEDGE SAYS it's time to do so. Failure to comply with this norm will result in a massive public test of physical fitness, such as giving her 20 pushups on the spot (I used to think this was a violation of the Geneva Conventions, but now I know better). Layer by layer, she has students uncover each next piece of evidence, which serves as a landing on a giant staircase of learning.

I want to be clear: this method is not "sage on the stage" so much as it is "trustworthy tour guide on a once-in-a-lifetime tour. She makes sure that her charges don't miss anything important along the way. I believe this is  our job — to set up experiences for our students so that they can uncover and develop what they need at each step. It's about helping kids to develop their capacity to slow down and attend to the world around them one thing at a time.

This is not something students can get from a MOOC or a videogame or other prepackaged online learning technique. It's a transfer of human praxis that happens mind to mind and heart to heart. This is why we say that the best teachers inspire.

Piece by piece, Hedge had us work through the statistical evidence and probabilities in the trial. She showed us how many parts of the trial hinged on competing interpretations of the statistical evidence by the lawyers, but the statistician expert witnesses each side employed, and ultimately, by the jury. I

I will definitely be adapting this unit for Math 8.


  1. Any chance you or the presenter could share any of the materials, for those of us not at camp? Thanks, Craig (cee ortner at jay eye ess dot edu dot or dot id:)

    1. Hi Craig — We are working on getting our act together. I need those materials and links too, so I'm lobbying for a page on the TMC13 wiki to contain them!

      - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)