By Nic English
Not too long ago, for some reason or another (possibly related to Michael Gove), myself, Squawka CEO Sanjit Atwal and the rest of the office were discussing education in Britain. While we disagreed on certain points, we found common ground in our passion for the subject. We also agreed that statistics has a huge image problem in education; as a Mathematics graduate myself I have experienced first hand how statistics can be taught in an un-engaging and repetitive manner.
A lot of these problems start at school, where statistics is taught using huge tables of data which are then used to calculate seemingly useless and unnecessary figures instead of being taught as a tool which can help you make beautiful charts, understand previously incomprehensible trends and construct new lines of argument.
As I vented interminably about the improper teaching of stats in schools and how someone should teach it in a manner which shows off how exciting the subject really is, Sanjit interrupted me and said “Well, why don’t you do it?” and so Squawka Academy was born.
The first task was to convince teachers to let us promote our slightly different viewpoint. Thankfully, we were extremely fortunate to be able to call on the help of Key Stage 5 co-ordinater Francis Bove. Francis, a keen football fan and a huge promoter of alternative methods of teaching mathematics in the East London area he works in, liked the idea and was kind enough to get us four hour-long spot on a summer Maths Enrichment Course at Queen Mary University for groups of fifty AS-Level students looking to brush up their maths skills before the new year.
With the venue and the students all secured, it was time to plan the actual session. Having decided that getting the kids involved was definitely the best course of action, myself and the two Squawka data analysts Dave O’Brien and TJ Johnson planned an hour of football data analysis culminating in a presentation session where each group would display their own infographs to the whole group. Couple of things made this a bit tricky: a) We needed to make sure the actual statistics on offer were in line with the AS-Level curriculum and b) There were bound to be people who didn’t like football in the room.
After a lot of hard work and deliberation, we found a balance which we thought would challenge the students while not blowing them away and appeal to a majority of people. And for those who didn’t like football, we offered Amazon vouchers to the best presentation as an added incentive. The challenge? To find out who was the best striker in the Premier League last season.
After a quick introduction and motivational pep talk about using statistics from yours truly, the kids were raring to go.
Obviously the most interesting part of the hour would be the presentation session but we first needed to ease the kids into a slightly different way of thinking; a huge majority of them had never seen stats applied in this manner before.
Rather than just crunching data to get a single number output (such as an average, standard deviation etc…) we had to get them in the mind-set that data can be used to create a point of view and to argue it. A full presentation outlining the introductory questions is available here.
With the help of TJ and Dave and armed with calculators, coloured pens and graph paper, the students were making their way through the question sheet and slowly getting to grips with the idea of data being used to form an argument.
With all the warm-up questions answered and the kids beginning to look at data from a slightly different point of view, we gave them half an hour to decide who they thought was the best striker in the Premier League season and justify their decision with a short presentation backed up with one or two infographs of their own design.
For us, the infographs were the really interesting part of the sessions, we’re always trying to come up with new ways of representing data at Squawka and were curious to see what kids would come up with when given enough paper and pens to make Neil Buchanan jealous. The key part was to get them away from conventional graphing methods and to come up with diagrams that illustrated their argument in a clear and simple manner. We were very impressed with the results…
In the first session we ran, a team of five girls from Hewens College fought off competition from all the boys to win the Amazon vouchers on offer with a cunning bit of data representation which involved plotting four different metrics on four different axis, the larger the shape, the better the player.
Other teams decided that looking at just a few metrics wasn’t sufficient and isolated too many players. A particularly committed team actually built a whole ranking-based points system to get a deeper understanding of who should be considered the best.
Another team entirely consisting of girls (spot the pattern) chose a slightly inaccurate but quite novel approach to representing the shot accuracy of a player. With this, you instantly understand that Van Persie has a higher shot accuracy than Andy Carroll.
Most of the teams seemed to argue that Robin Van Persie was the best striker last season. Very few people would disagree, the Dutchman was top scorer last season and at times it looked like he couldn’t miss.
Having said that, a lot of groups also argued in favour of Christian Benteke who scored 19 goals for a permanently relegation-threatened Aston Villa side. The enormous Belgian was impressive with his chance conversion rate and heading ability and many students decided this earned him the top spot.
The enthusiasm for the subject is what was most heartening on the day. To my memory, only one group of four students didn’t enjoy the afternoon, despite my attempt to “relate to tha yoof”. We were fortunate to get some feedback from the day, 71.8% of the schoolkids found that the session had changed their perception of statistics, a truly exciting result.
Everyone embraced the idea that data could be used as a tool to help you explain a real-life concept rather than just a bunch of useless numbers. Also, it was a lot of fun.
Hopefully more events like this can take place and get noticed on a larger scale. The data revolution has captured the imagination of the public on a huge scale, from what we’ve seen that popularity and enthusiasm translates to schoolchildren as well. After all, which parent doesn’t want their child to be interested in maths?
Squawka would like to extend huge gratitude to the students, teachers and headteachers of all the school involved with the Squawka Academy for letting us go just a little off-curriculum. We would also like to copiously thank Francis Bove for letting us participate and Jane Annets for organising the sessions so capably and providing us with everything that we needed.