Another dot in the blogosphere?

Two number games & lessons on teaching

Posted on: January 31, 2017

According to this BBC report, Northumbria University ‘life-threatening’ caffeine test fine, two sports science students were supposed to be given 300mg of caffeine in a study. Instead, they received 30,000mg (over one-and-a-half times the lethal dose) due to a miscalculation.

The two human subjects recovered after dialysis and intensive care. The university was fined £400,000 (almost SGD717,000 at the current exchange rate).

The numbers obviously matter in this case. The insufficient attention to the calculation to the dose ultimately led to a hefty fine. The university was fortunate not to add two to the number deaths on campus.

Then there are cases where numbers should matter less, or even not at all.

This WaPo article, Trump pressured Park Service to find proof for his claims about inauguration crowd, reported how Trump sought numbers to confirm his perception that his inauguration crowd was not as small as reported by the press.

The article provides insights into how some people, not just Trump, play the numbers game. They take a perspective built on bias or limited information, and then seek data to back it up.

The article was a reminder what NOT to do because this is like coming to a conclusion first, then conducting a study, collecting data, and massaging the results and discussion to fit the conclusion.

If we jump on schooling tangent, this is similar to the conventional and deductive way of teaching: Present a basic concept and then build it up with examples and practice. While this approach might work from a content expert’s point of view, it ignores another method.

A less oft used method is that of induction. Here phenomena, data, and noise are collected and processed first before arriving at generalisations or conclusions.

The deductive method generally goes from general to specific while the inductive one goes from specific to general. Instruction can consist of both, of course, but we tend to practice and experience more deductive methods because that is how most textbooks are written and how experts try to simplify for novices.

There is nothing wrong with the deductive method in itself. It is the over-reliance on that strategy and the imbalance that is the problem.

Likewise, playing the numbers game like Trump and worrying about how they indicate reputation or bruised ego can make you focus on what is relatively unimportant. It can tip the balance the wrong way.

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