Count on us? A crisis of numeracy in geography and related disciplines?


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Presentation given to the Higher Education Network Annual Meeting of the British Geological Society, January 16th, 2013

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Count on us? A crisis of numeracy in geography and related disciplines?

  1. 1. Count on us? A crisis of numeracy in geography and related disciplines?
  2. 2. Source: … or, which glass is it?
  3. 3. The problem The British Academy is deeply concerned that the UK is weak in quantitative skills, in particular but not exclusively in the social sciences and the humanities. This deficit has serious implications for the future of the UK‟s status as a world leader in research and education, for the employability of our graduates, and for the competiveness of the UK‟s economy.  Society Counts. A Position Statement from the British Academy (2012).
  4. 4. Some evidence Most social science students graduate with only a narrow range of QM skills, little confidence in using them and little practice in applying them. Few students use any QM in their project or dissertation work, and even fewer undertake secondary analysis of existing data – MacInnes (2010)
  5. 5. Some evidence Although data now pervade our lives and our way of understanding the world we live in, many people are so frightened at the sight of numbers that they are unable to engage with them. This is a disaster for those individuals, and also for the nation as a whole. Increasingly we need people who are at ease with data, in their many forms, and able to interpret them.  The Future of Statistics in Our Schools and Colleges (2012)
  6. 6. Some evidence In a survey of 24 countries, England, Wales and Northern Ireland had the lowest levels of participation in upper secondary mathematics. They were the only countries in which fewer than 20% of upper secondary students study maths. This includes all mathematics qualifications at this level, but excludes GCSE retakes. – Is the UK an outlier? An international comparison of upper secondary mathematics education. Nuffield Foundation (2010)
  7. 7. Some evidence UK is ranked 28th of 65 in the 2009 international comparison in maths of 15 year olds (PISA)
  8. 8. Source: The Future of Statistics in ourSchools and Colleges (Porkess, 2012)
  9. 9.  All of which could be a problem to geography and related disciplines because…
  10. 10. Subject benchmark: geography (2007) §3.12: – All geographers should be conversant with a substantial range of analytical and observational strategies, including most or all of the following: social survey and interviewing methods; geographical field research; laboratory-based analysis (both scientific and computational); quantitative analysis; qualitative analysis; and modelling strategies. Students should also be familiar with the developing technology associated with these strategies, such as computer packages for statistical and qualitative analysis, specialist computing and remote sensing.
  11. 11. Subject benchmark: Earth sciences, environmental sciences and environmental studies §3.10: – The graduate key skills that should be developed in ES3 degree programmes are:  appreciating issues of sample selection, accuracy, precision and uncertainty  during collection, recording and analysis of data in the field and laboratory  preparing, processing, interpreting and presenting data, using appropriate  qualitative and quantitative techniques and packages including geographic information systems  solving numerical problems using computer and non-computer- based techniques  using the internet critically as a means of communication and a source of information.
  12. 12. About me and my institution I am a human geographer at the University of Bristol Typically students hold three As or AAB at A level. Of current year 1 (n = 143) – 58% have an A level in maths or statistics – 56% have a science A level – 5% self-rate their maths as excellent – 45% self-rate as good – 40% as adequate – 10% as poor
  13. 13. About me and my institution All of our students have to study: descriptive statistics, inferential statistics, relational statistics, multilevel modelling, GIS, principle of scientific computing Physical students as above, omitting multilevel modelling but include geostatistics and process modelling The main software we use is R – Open source, cross-platform, well supported Issues of sample bias and external validity in what I am saying here!
  14. 14. In a week 1 test of numeracy Self-rating Mean Excellent 73% Good 70% Adequate 65% Poor 50% Maths A level 70% Without maths 61% Science A level 69% Without 62% (All) (66%)
  15. 15. Examples of ‘easy’ questions What is the square root of 400? – 97% answered correctly There are one hundred students, of which one quarter are male. Of these, one fifth are able to read a map. What percentage of the students are female? – 96% answered correctly What is 2 divided by 20 written to one decimal place? – 96% answered correctly
  16. 16. Examples of ‘difficult’ questions What is the common logarithm (log) of 1000? – 41% answered correctly “Children living in neighbourhoods with more criminal activity are more likely to commit crimes as adults.” In this statement, childhood neighbourhood crime rate is the…? (select one of primary variable, dependent variable, independent variable, none of the above). – 36% answered correctly
  17. 17. Also asked them some attitudinal questions Which of the following words best describes you attitude towards maths? – Anxious: 17% – Curious 6% – Fearful: 10% – Interested: 24% – Keen: 6% – Neutral: 25% – Reluctant: 11%
  18. 18. Learning quantitative methods… S Agr Agree Disagre S DisImportant for my 50% 49% 1% 0%educationUnderstand 66% 34% 0% 0%ResearchBetter geographer 45% 51% 4% 0%Get a job 43% 47% 10% 0%Scientific debate 45% 51% 4% 0%Social debate 20% 61% 20% 0%More important for 4% 17% 58% 21%physical geographyOf not interest at all 1% 7% 51% 41%
  19. 19. An on-going survey of teachers Please tick any of the following quantitative skills that you teach or use with your students.
  20. 20. An on-going survey of teachers Which of the following GIS tools do you use? Please tick all that apply.
  21. 21. An on-going survey of teachers  Which, if any, of the following statistical methods do you teach? Please tick all that apply.The others are: t test; Nearest neighbour; statisticalmapping, mean centre, bipolar semantics
  22. 22. An on-going survey of teachers How confident are you in your knowledge of the following methods:
  23. 23. In the Future of Statistics report Geography comes out well. – “There are many opportunities for the use of statistics in geography, including sampling and data collection, data display and interpretation. Many students experience these through their fieldwork. In addition, it is common for teachers to introduce students to techniques, such as Spearman‟s rank correlation, that are beyond the strict requirements of the GCSE syllabuses.”  (p. 73, emphasis added)
  24. 24. The importance of fieldwork Geography is better at teaching statistics in context than the disciplines of maths and statistics are!
  25. 25. Source:
  26. 26. Nevertheless, some challenges… Fieldwork is under threat in schools – Costly, disruptive, difficult to assess The teaching and use of geospatial technologies in schools – Professional knowledge, providing the computational infrastructure The (suspected) reduction of quantitative content in human geography Problems of choice and competition – At all levels of education
  27. 27. Some challenges… Embedding quantitative methods in curricula Should we really be teaching 19th/20th century statistics in an age of „big data‟ (where the sample  population)? Getting the balance between theory and data exploration – See science-is-a-failure-of-imagination/
  28. 28. Source: to the right ✗ ✓ Nevertheless, I think it is the glass