Future challenges of teaching mathematics and statistics: Interview with Guy Lecturer, Stella Dudzic

Every year the Royal Statistical Society appoints a lecturer to tour schools to increase the visibility of statistics with their talk, named after British physician and statistician William Guy. This year’s Guy Lecturer is Stella Dudzic, the MEI Programme Leader for Curriculum. After gaining a MA in Mathematics, Stella completed her PGCE in Secondary Mathematics and then taught for 22 years in secondary schools, including 9 years as head of department, before joining MEI in 2006. In addition to her work in curriculum development, she is a textbook author and editor and regularly leads CPD for teachers.

She specialises in developing teaching and learning in statistics, as well as working on teaching and learning at GCSE level, specifications and associated assessments, departmental reviews and the provision of advice on curriculum and assessment. She is Treasurer of the Teaching Statistics Trust which publishes the journal Teaching Statistics and a member of the Royal Statistical Society Education Strategy Group.

StatisticsViews.com talks to Stella Dudzic about her role as Guy Lecturer during the International Year of Statistics, her experience in teaching statistics in schools, her role as MEI Programme Leader, the Teaching Statistics Trust and what can be done to attract young people to statistics.

 

1. Congratulations on being this year’s Guy Lecturer. Your lecture is titled ‘Measuring Inequality’ and focuses on the aftermath of the 2012 Riots asking questions such as how can inequality be measured? How did you come to arrive at this idea for the lecture and what was the final driving force behind it?

Last year I was working on a Clothworkers Foundation funded project called ‘Integrating Mathematical Problem-Solving’ and as part of that, I was writing resources to help both teachers of mathematics and teachers of other subjects at A-level to teach relevant aspects of mathematics and statistics and show how they are used to solve real problems.

One of the resources that I was working on was about the use of the Gini coefficient in measuring income and equality. Now as I use that resource in CPD with teachers, it became clear that although the ideas involved were not mathematically complex, people found them interesting and it did make them think. So therefore, when I was asked to be the Guy Lecturer for this year, it seemed the obvious theme to choose.

2. What were your main objectives during the writing process? Were there areas that you found more challenging and if so, why?

The main objective for me was to tell a coherent story in a way that engages the audience and the main problem I had was deciding what to leave out. There are many aspects of inequality, such as is related to income, gender and geography, and I decided to focus on income-related inequality as that is where I started from.

3. What are your main priorities/objectives for year as Guy Lecturer, especially with regards to this year being the International Year of Statistics?

I want to encourage young people to think about what statistics are telling them and the implications for the world that they live in. Thinking about issues of inequality raises questions such as “Is that how things ought to be?” and “How can things be different?” These are the sorts of questions that young people think about anyway. I want them to be able to use statistics in order to inform their thinking.

4. How has the lecture tour been going so far and what kind of feedback have you been receiving from students?

I did wonder before I started just how interesting young people would find the lecture. I think the options for entertainment, particularly for young people, are a lot more exciting nowadays than when I was young! Would they find just sitting and listening for an hour a foreign thing to do that is not very engaging? I have been very pleasantly surprised. They have concentrated really well and when we have had time for questions, they have asked very insightful questions showing that they are thinking about the issues and that they are interested. They have also been very polite thanking me for coming to talk to them so I’ve been very pleased as to how it’s gone so far!

Stella Dudzic giving the Guy Lecture at Kingston University

 

5. How does your role as Guy Lecturer tie in with getstats and other RSS/global initiatives to educate the population about the usefulness of being statistically literate?

I think the aims for all of those initiatives include enabling people to see that statistics is about something that matters to them and can give them interesting and useful information. The Guy Lecture ties in with promoting statistical literacy for the general public.

6. With an educational background in mathematics, when and how did you first become aware of statistics as a discipline?

When I was at school, we didn’t really do statistics as part of mathematics but I took an O-level in government economics and commerce which included a question about interpreting data and I very much enjoyed that. I liked being able to look at a table of figures and see the story which the numbers told. Later, I took some statistics courses as part of my degree and when statistics began to be taught within mathematics courses, I taught the statistics and I very much enjoyed doing that. I do not have a background stretching back years in statistics but it is a discipline that I have always enjoyed.

7. Your current role is MEI Programme Leader for Curriculum. What does this role entail exactly?

In a nutshell, it’s helping teachers to teach the MEI specifications, starting from developing new specifications to being involved in national discussions about changes to the teaching of mathematics. I help to provide appropriate teaching resources, suitable training, answering teachers’ questions, so it involves quite a lot of different aspects but they are all concentrated on helping the teachers to teach the MEI specifications successfully.

8. You have taught mathematics extensively at secondary schools and been the Head of a Mathematics Department. What you do think can be done to attract schoolchildren to learning statistics? Could it be taught alongside mathematics from primary school?

One year I was teaching both Mathematics GCSE and Statistics GCSE to the same group of students and some of them very much enjoyed the mathematics, whilst others the statistics. When we had a discussion with the latter group, it came out that the reason they enjoyed statistics more was that there was room for opinion and interpretation, which they liked. With statistics, students can see the purpose of what they’re learning and its relation to something, rather than them just learning technical skills like drawing graphs or using a calculator for trigonometry, which some may not see much use for in their future lives. At primary school level, there is lots of scope for using simple statistical graphs as part of projects that they might do at that level. It becomes harder to make it interesting at secondary level because it can be harder for teachers to try and find the sort of context that students will enjoy working with and find interesting. There is a need for people like me to ensure that there are helpful and available resources for teachers to work with. Particularly, the Royal Statistical Society and the Royal Statistical Society Centre for Statistical Education have good resources on their sites for schools so it’s also about making teachers aware that these kinds of resources are available, so that they can use examples rather than just simply working their way through the textbook.

At primary school level, there is lots of scope for using simple statistical graphs as part of projects that they might do at that level. It becomes harder to make it interesting at secondary level because it can be harder for teachers to try and find the sort of context that students will enjoy working with and find interesting. There is a need for people like me to ensure that there are helpful and available resources for teachers to work with.

9. From your experience, what do you think the future of teaching statistics will be? What do you think will be the upcoming challenges in engaging students?

I think the use of IT will enable students to work on much more complex data sets than they would be able to otherwise and from a curriculum development point-of-view, the challenge is to decide how much those kinds of uses of software should be incorporated into teaching, learning and examining. You need to bear in mind especially that appropriate equipment and software might not be equally available in all schools and colleges. From the point of view of engaging students, I think in a way, the challenge remains the same – to relate what they’re learning to something that will interest them. On one hand, that is easier because there is so much more data available now through the internet, but on the other hand, that has made it harder because there are so many possible places to look for interesting data that will also be useful for helping students to learn. This is the way though of progress – as one aspect moves forward, another becomes more challenging.

10. You also work with the Teaching Statistics Trust. What is the aim of the Trust and what kind of role do you have?

The Trust aims to promote the use of statistics in schools and the journal, Teaching Statisticsis part of that focus on teaching statistics to children from the age of 9 to 19. In addition to that, the Trust also commissions research into teaching statistics, such as publishing a report earlier this year on statistics in PGCE courses. My role is as a trustee but particularly more so as the current Treasurer.

11. With the current need to analyse and sort Big Data, do you think the UK will be able to produce enough statisticians to cope with this demand?

I think there are all sorts of people who use statistics who would not necessarily call themselves statisticians such as geographers, sociologists, economists and business people and I wonder whether the main barrier is not necessarily having enough people to do the analysing. Personally, I am not sure what we can do with Big Data and I wonder whether that is a more widespread area in terms of not knowing what to do with all of this information. Once we’ve sorted out what we can do with Big Data, it will be easier to find those who are up to the task. I think the biggest challenge is finding the people with the understanding and imagination to map out the possibilities and show us just what we can find out that would be useful.

12. What has been the most exciting development that you have worked on in teaching mathematics and statistics during your career?

I am always excited on what I am working on at the time and I am very lucky to be involved in areas that interest me. At the moment, I am working on redeveloping A-level mathematics and also on courses for those who do not wish to study A-level courses but for whom the continued study of mathematics would be useful.

I once worked with a group from Manchester Metropolitan University on materials that helped make sense of maths which were published by Hodder. We looked at ways of enabling students at foundation level GCSE to learn mathematics starting from real context which they will understand. One of the great aspects of that was that once the book was published, copies were shown around the office and people who were not involved in maths were really interested in our book, so I was very proud to be part of a publication which got people interested in maths, whom might not otherwise have been.

Once we’ve sorted out what we can do with Big Data, it will be easier to find those who are up to the task. I think the biggest challenge is finding the people with the understanding and imagination to map out the possibilities and show us just what we can find out that would be useful.

13. What do you think the most important recent developments in the field of teaching statistics have been? What do you think will be the most exciting and productive areas of research during the next few years?

One of the most exciting aspects to me is the development of ways of looking at data available on the internet, such as Gapminder, which are dynamic, interactive and make data more easily accessible and intelligible to a wide range of users.

14. Are there people or events that have been influential in your career?

There are so many – my parents, teachers, colleagues. I would definitely say my form tutor during what would now be Years 10-13 who was also the Head of Mathematics. She was influential because she told me that I was going to do Maths and Further Maths at A-level at the time when I was trying to decide what to study and I did not particularly think that mathematics was the most interesting subject. A year later, she told me I was going to apply for Cambridge and I would never have considered doing so.

Lots of my colleagues have been influential when I have seen the ways in which they have interacted with students, got them interested in mathematics and made them think in terms of asking questions.

Sometimes small things can be influential. When I started for MEI, I was asked by a colleague if I wanted to be the statistics expert which was a big surprise! I was enthusiastic about the idea and as I said yes, it has opened up opportunities that would otherwise just not have been available to me. So often it can be people whom you have known for years who can be influential and sometimes, it can be just someone raising a point or asking a question and that can have a knock-on effect.