Statistics Debrief, Part 1: Why turn Algebra 2 into a Stats Class?

Over the summer, starting at PCMI, and continuing into my planning for the year, I came to decide that I’d frame the first semester of my 11th grade Algebra 2 & Trig classes with a statistics curriculum.

Several factors played into this decision.  Among them:

  • My students and I have shared a great experience delving deeply into trigonometry each of the last two Spring terms, but I have been much less satisfied with the mish-mosh of topics that comprise “Algebra 2” and that I had loosely covered the last two Falls.  I thought that a stats focus would create a common thread similar to trig, while still hitting many of the Algebra 2 topics.  Indeed, many stats topics are part of the Algebra 2 curriculum.
  • Statistics are well-represented in the Common Core Standards for high school math, and I wanted to take an opportunity to get to know them a bit.  The Student Learning Targets I used in my classroom came directly from the CCS.
  • The majority of the students scheduled for my A2&Trig have not mastered all of the topics from Algebra 1, so they’re unprepared to hit the ground running on things like function composition, logarithms, or polynomial functions.  Rather than just frustrating them by either lobbing more bricks onto a shoddy foundation, or – probably worse – hammering away at topics they’ve tried unsuccessfully, it seemed to me that stats would feel fresher to many students.  Not that everything would be brand new, but a new lens always helps.  Additionally, about 20% of my students still need to pass the Algebra 1 Regents exam.  For them, revisiting then building on some stats concepts from that exam would hopefully help them.
  • In late August, the NY Times published an the op-ed piece, “How to Fix Our Math Education,” and I generally agreed with it.  Now, I believe strongly in exposing kids to the beautiful topics of pure mathematics: to topics that flow from one to the next, and those from which surprising and exciting connections flow.  But as Mumford & Garfunkel write in their piece, quantitative literacy and the ability to solve real-life problems should be central to the math curriculum.  The ideal of any math teacher worth their salt should be to mix both.  And here’s the thing: some Algebra 2 topics, like dividing polynomials, don’t fit into either of these categories.  Here is a topic that lacks both pure beauty and common real-world application.  At best, division of polynomials is a fun puzzle for the whizzes of algebraic manipulation (a subgroup of any class to whom I’ll be happy to make this introduction) or a building block of advanced algebra for students who will continue down the corridor of our currently traditional math curriculum (probably the same kids).  A focus on stats, it was clear to me, yields the opportunity to address real-world questions.
  • Or, as simpler summary of the long-winded point immediately above this one: IT’S THE INFORMATION AGE, AND STATISTICS ARE FREAKING EVERYWHERE!
  • Finally, upon returning to school, I learned that this year there would be a school-wide focus on argumentative writing across the curriculum.  What’s more obvious than using statistical analysis to advance an argument?

I might be repeating myself a little from previous posts, but over the next few days, I’d like to debrief on the semester that’s ending now, and also begin to use this site as an archive for curriculum, projects, and ideas.  It only seems right to start by recollecting why I started the semester as I did.  In the next post, I’ll begin the reflection.

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