Inspiring and sharing best practice: An interview with the Editors of Teaching Statistics

Launched in 1979, Teaching Statistics is aimed at teachers of students aged up to 19 who use statistics in their work. The emphasis is on teaching the subject and addressing problems which arise in the classroom. The journal seeks to support not only specialist statistics teachers but also those in other disciplines, such as economics, biology and geography, who make widespread use of statistics in their teaching. Teaching Statistics seeks to inform, enlighten, stimulate, correct, entertain and encourage.

Helen MacGillivray, Professor of Statistics and Mathematical Sciences at University of Queensland has recently come on board as Co-Editor alongside Paul Hewson, Associate Professor of Statistics at Plymouth University. Statistics Views talks to Professors MacGillivray and Hewson about the Journal and the influence of statistics on their careers.

1. How did you both become involved with the Journal?

Paul: I was invited to consider the role by the then chair of the Trustees.

Helen: I had reviewed papers for it and written one, and in 2006 had chatted to the then Editor (Gerald Goodall) about the need for more papers with accompanying datasets. The chair of the Trustees asked me to consider being Editor in 2010 but I couldn’t then, and also I thought it best to have an Editor based in the UK. In May 2013 I visited Plymouth and met with Paul and we had many ideas and ideals in common, so when one of Board of Trustees talked to me mid-2013 about being a co-Editor, I said to put my name forward.

2. What makes Teaching Statistics different from other journals in the field?

Paul: It is unique – its emphasis is on teaching practice, helping teachers and progressing the development of learners of statistics across all disciplines; the age range of learners is 9-19 years.

Helen: It was started in 1978 by renowned statisticians (Professors Vic Barnett and Joe Gani) based on a newsletter and the work of an ISI (International Statistical Institute) Task Force on Teaching Statistics, and so came from the early ground-breaking work in emphasis on learning statistics as it is practiced by statisticians in real contexts. Papers in Teaching Statistics need to be scholarly-written, statistically-sound, and relevant to both statistics and education literature, but the emphasis is on the learner and teaching practice.

3. Who should be reading the Journal and why?

Paul and Helen: It should be relevant for anyone teaching statistics (under any subject heading, not necessarily maths and stats) in the target age range. Also those who design curricula and write resources for teaching statistics.

4. What kind of papers or authors would you like to attract to the Journal?

Paul: Articles that can inspire best practice or provide a useful perspective to practitioners involved in teaching (for example considering curriculum developments or reviews of valuable teaching resources). Ideally there is some cognisance of evidence based practice within the article (but I am not necessarily interested in pedagogical research articles) but where appropriate, some scholarly reflection on the context of the learners and their engagement is a vital part. My main priority at the moment would be inspiring and sharing best practice.

Helen: There are many teachers of statistics, at school and university level, who develop excellent approaches, strategies, resources, and activities that help students to learn statistical thinking, but who do not necessarily write about these because they are not involved in educational research. But these are exactly what need to be brought to light and shared, and that was the original aim of the Trust.


5. What do you enjoying most about being Editor?

Paul: Dealing with authors who are clearly inspired and motivated teachers. I do a lot of outreach work and encounter a lot of excellent practice – I wish we could harness more of this for the journal.

Helen: I am new but so far I would certainly say working with authors and Trust members with shared visions.

6. What are your main priorities/objectives for the Journal in the year ahead and also in the years to come?

Paul: To strengthen the focus on material that is useful across the 9-19 age range and ideally to consider the practicalities of engaging a wide range of learners within any part of that age range.

Helen: To encourage more ‘coalface’ people to write about teaching practice that develops statistical thinking and involves authentic learning experiences with real contexts and real data; to emphasize hands-on learning to tackle problems; and to integrate probabilistic and statistical thinking.

7. The Journal is the official Journal of the Teaching Statistics Trust, which was associated with the Royal Statistical Society’s Centre for Statistical Education (RSSCSE) until it closed in 2014, but continues to be associated with the new International Centre for Statistical Education, ICSE at Plymouth University. How does the relationship between Journal and Trust work?

Paul and Helen: The Trust was set up in 1978. It had several general aims for the promotion of statistical education, a key one being the establishment of the journal Teaching Statistics. The first Centre for Statistical Education was set up in the University of Sheffield in 1982. This is also where the Applied Probability Trust was set up in 1964 (it is still there) to publish journals in applied probability. The RSSCSE was set up in 1995, hosted by the University of Nottingham. When it moved to Nottingham Trent University in 1999, the RSSCSE director was asked if the RSSCSE could be the physical home of the journal Teaching Statistics. Apart from this physical hosting, the relationship was mostly based on common goals, common interests and often common personnel. The Centre moved to Plymouth University in 2009. This continues to be the case for the ICSE.

8. Please could you tell us more about the C. Oswald George and Peter Holmes Prizes?

Paul and Helen: Dr C. Oswald George was an eminent UK government statistician. Dr George was one of the founders of the Institute of Statisticians (originally The Association of Incorporated Statisticians Ltd) in 1948, and served as Chairman or President for many years. He donated a sum of money for the establishment of a prize, which was initially awarded to ‘the best paper, especially submitted by younger authors, in the field of applied statistics’. This prize was later associated with the Institute of Statisticians’ professional examinations. When Teaching Statistics was founded in 1979, the Institute generously made the prize available to the best article published in the journal each year. When the Institute merged with the Royal Statistical Society in 1993, the prize continued. This prestigious award is now funded by the Royal Statistical Society on behalf of Teaching Statistics.

Peter Holmes was the founding director of the first Centre for Statistical Education and the journal’s founding Editor. To honour his work, the Peter Holmes Prize is awarded to the best classroom idea published in Teaching Statistics each year.

9. Please could you tell us more about your educational backgrounds and when and how did you first become aware of statistics as a discipline?

Paul: I started life as a biologist. I had the benefit of an excellent service course in statistics as an undergraduate, but found more and more statistical demands in my working life (having exposure to clinical trials, statistical process control and design of experiments). I took an MSc by part time distance learning, changed career, did a PhD in my spare time and ended up where I am now. I guess this makes me particularly interested in the epistemological motivation – what do we learn about the world as a result of quantitative methods – rather than learning a toolbox of techniques and hence makes me very strongly interested in statistical literacy.

Helen: I was studying mathematics and physics at university and in second year I dropped physics and took statistics subjects instead. By the end of third year, stochastic processes and statistics had ‘grabbed’ me. As a vacation scholar in statistics at the Australian National University (ANU, the first vacation scholar in statistics) working with Pat Moran, and observing other leading statisticians, I saw more of what a rich discipline it is. I included all the statistics subjects I could in my honours year in maths, returned to ANU as a tutor, and then did my PhD (on statistical problems from chemical engineering) mostly part-time at the University of Queensland while tutoring and then lecturing. I became increasingly involved in statistical education, through lecturing large classes across sciences and engineering from 1978-2011, lecturing across all university levels, increasing involvement in the school level, learning support, statistical support for postgraduates across disciplines, and lots of professional work.

10. From your experience, are there specific challenges in conveying or teaching statistics concepts within other disciplines?

Paul: No. I see the challenge as a ‘teacher to the test’ problem which occurs in any field. Many points of statistical literacy (the difference between a randomised control trial and an observational study) are actually more naturally covered in a scientific context than a mathematical one. Unfortunately we all lose by reducing statistics to a plug and chug / pass the exam subject; replacing plug and chug by pick and click does not necessarily help.

Helen: There are common challenges across all disciplines, particularly in ensuring linkage with what is currently familiar to students, not what they might meet later. Trying to use too much of the discipline they are in, rather than what is familiar to the students, is a fault seen in many other disciplines. All disciplines have some challenges, but they tend to be more specific to the educational setting/restrictions rather than the discipline itself.

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

Paul: I watched a local school (at Colyton) develop a scientific project “life in the vines” where they studied changes in the environment as a result of farmers developing a vineyard. It was a fantastic example of a real world problem studied in a scientific way where the students made a real contribution to knowledge as a result of designing data collection systems, collecting data and analysing their results.

Helen: One was starting authentic discovery free-choice statistical investigations in large introductory statistics classes, particularly in engineering. Another was developing authentic constructivist learning environments in introductory probability classes. In both cases, the thrill of watching students become excited and own their learning, and seeing how much they learnt, was matched only by how much I learnt about how to teach real statistics and real probability.

12. Are there people or events that have been influential in your respective careers?

Paul: Yes but it’s hard to single out one. I worked for three years at Devon County Council and my line manager was very keen on evidence-based practice before the phrase had been invented. Both data analysis and critical appraisal were essential and what mattered was the commitment to make unpopular decisions if they believed the evidence supported them.

Helen: There are many colleagues with whom it has been a pleasure to interact, including Adrian Bowman, John McColl, and Chris Wild. But the people who have most influenced how I teach are the many thousands of students (approximately 25,000) whose learning I’ve watched and shared. Events include being a Counsellor in Mathematics at ANU in 1976, being President of the Statistical Society of Australia 1995-1997, attending ICOTS2 in 1990.


Copyright: Image appear courtesy of Professor MacGillivray