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How to Teach Children the Concept of Probability & Statistics

This is not a post related to 3D animation or Visual Effects.  It’s not about any digital art or even computers, directly.  But it does show how easy it can be to introduce a relatively complex subject even to children if it is framed in the right way.

Probability and Statistics sounds pretty complex.  It is usually not even introduced to children until high school.  My Prob&Stat instructor taught me about plotting bell curves from data and about statistical analysis and probability distribution and long before I “got” what it really was.  And when I eventually came to a conclusion on my own, I wondered why my math teacher worked so hard to explain the topic in such a difficult and convoluted way when conceptually it is so simple.

And then one day while talking about the future of the world, I got into a discussion with my son about the relative unreliability of statistics.  How they can be twisted to say pretty much whatever you want them to say, and about how they can be misused to predict probabilities that are most likely to result in a big fat research grant.  But he didn’t really get what statistics were and how they related to what might happen in the future.  So I explained it to him this way.

Me:            “You know what your sister was like when she woke up this morning?”

Michael:     “Yeah, she was pretty grumpy.”

Me:            “How about yesterday?”

Michael:     “She was pretty grumpy yesterday when she woke up too.”

Me:            “And what about the day before?”

Michael:     “Well she’s pretty much always grumpy when she wakes up.”

Me:      “So what will she probably be like when she wakes up tomorrow?”

Michael: “Grumpy.”

Me:     “Right.  Your statistics are that every day she wakes up grumpy, so now you know that she will probably wake up grumpy tomorrow.  That’s all there is to it.  You don’t KNOW that she will wake up grumpy tomorrow, but you think that she probably will.

Probability and Statistics simply use knowledge of what has happened in the past to try and predict what might happen in the future.  The more statistical information you have, the more likely your prediction of the future is likely to work out the way you thought.  Of course Prob& Stat is more complex than this, but the concept remains simple.   In fact, we all use Prob&Stat all the time without even thinking about it.  How often have you thought about driving somewhere and deciding to go at a certain time of day to avoid traffic?   Or gone to see a movie by a certain director because you have enjoyed all his previous movies.  These are perfect examples of practical probability and statistics.

This conversation with my son was a big lesson for me.  I realized that in order to introduce a new concept, I only needed to frame it in a way that was relative to the learner’s previous experience.   I think it’s pretty cool that my son can teach me so much just by being curious about the world.

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