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Data and context in statistics education: towards an evidence-based society

The realization that data is preferable to anecdote or intuition as a basis for robust decision making is spreading through many professions and sections of society. More and more, people want to see “the evidence”. Statistical methodology and modelling are increasingly pervading the research fabrics of all fields that advance by employing empirical enquiry. And since the root purpose of statistics is to extract insight and meaning about real contexts using data, statistics educators are increasingly realizing that this cannot be modelled by teachers without the use of rich, real contexts. It is important that data and contexts pervade statistical learning and teaching, to help students understand the nature and value of the statistical sciences, and to facilitate their learning. Successful learning processes involve data and contexts that are meaningful to students. These can be relevant to everyday life or to disciplines as varied as psychology, biology, business, sociology, engineering, the health sciences and statistics itself. But many questions remain about the myriad ways in which we can exploit context to achieve our educational goals. We also must look hard at how well we use the data and contexts that should be guiding our own educational practices.

Evidence-based practice in other disciplines: some examples

Statisticians are often essential contributors in research teams in many disciplines and examples drawn from these contexts can enrich and facilitate the teaching of statistics. Interaction between statistics educators, statisticians and researchers in a relevant specialization can contribute significantly to the rich, real contextual and data resources that are of such value in both motivating and assisting statistical learning.
  • Trends in medicine and other health sciences are governed by data, and evidence-based medicine is taught now in all medical schools.
  • Data from the biological sciences provide information for resolving problems on environmental and ecological issues.
  • The six-sigma revolution uses statistical quality control methods to monitor and improve industrial and engineering processes resulting in evidence-based decision making in industry.
  • National statistics offices and international agencies contribute to evidence-based decision making in government and on public policy by collecting, collating, analysing and presenting data to populations at large and to governments in particular.

Evidence-based practice in statistics education

Evidence-based practice should also be employed in statistics education itself. How do we use context when teaching about variability, probability, inference and modelling? How do we interpret data from surveys, questionnaires or interviews and how are these related to the research hypotheses? To what extent are conclusions valid and reliable? Are we dealing with and explaining risk appropriately? Only with the answers to these intriguing questions will we be able to make informed decisions as we strive to reach an evidence-based society.

Education ideas are shared on the web, through international and national projects, programmes, workshops and conferences in statistics education where diverse innovations are shared. The impact and relevance of new ideas are assessed and often adopted by others in their own teaching. Reports on the successes of recent statistics education programmes in South Africa and Latin America reflect the impact of the two ICOTS conferences and provide helpful ideas for other countries.