Understanding Data, Measuring Change

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Essays

Should calculus be required in schools? What about statistics?

I have had this debate a number of times over the past few weeks with folks from very different fields (medicine, finance, software, education). 

The pro-calculus team says:
— understanding the rate of change is critical to how quickly, or in what manner, a set changes in time, or a number grows. This is important for measuring a disease’s propagation, or understanding your 401k’s compounding interest; infinite series are what recursive functions in computer science were made for!

The anti-calculus team says:
— when was the last time I calculated a differential? I didn’t need calculus to understand the concept of something growing at a faster rate. The vast majority of medical practices don’t really need calculus or physics as much as they need social science, chemistry, and biology. It’s silly to require it. Except in sophisticated finance or quantitative economics, I never need to integrate a function. And those skills are learned on the job, or in a CFA or FINRA exams.

Let’s move to statistics: I increasingly feel strongly that it *should* be required. Harshil Parikh from Tuva Labs said: “we are going from an algebra and calculus society to a statistics and quantitative reasoning one, so our pedagogy needs to adapt.” Nate Silver’s recent rise to prominence and the Moneyball and statistics driven approaches to sports and politics represent the beginning of an age where we can measure everything. 

Understanding what it means for a data point to be statistically insignificant, or the difference between the mean and the median are critical and very widely applicable tools, certainly the way that a rate of change is. How can an 11th grader get an intuitive sense for that New York Times chart showing that 2014 was a record year in temperature? Or, better yet, for looking at a map of race and poverty distributions in a city and being able to draw real, thoughtful conclusions about the data?

Data scientist is a relatively new job — maybe like software developer was in the early 90s. And just as the entire software stack has developed to dramatically lower the barrier to entry, and make the notion of ‘coding’ a toolkit that a wider and wider segment of the population can access and effectively use, it stands to reason that manipulating data sets to draw conclusions about, say, how to better coach your soccer team, or manage your grocery shopping, or optimize your boss’s calendar, ought to — and will — follow. 

Data literacy has been described by the Secretary of Education as a national priority, but is it more important than Calculus? Are Leibniz and Newton turning over in their graves at the prospect of high school students graduating with statistics but not calculus? Should stats replace calculus?

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