I subscribe to the FiveThirtyEight newsletter. For those of you unfamiliar with 538 it is a website about numbers. Generally polling numbers but also general and advanced statistics that founder Nate Silver and his team use to make predictions. They predict just about anything from politics to sports.They make unbiased calls on who is leading political races and pick the winners of just about every pro and major college game. They do all of this using math. Kind of nerdy but cool.
After the Green Bay Packers lost to the Arizona Cardinals last weekend, Benjamin Morris, a sportswriter for 538, wrote that the Packers didn’t understand middle school mathematics. Morris’ assertion was that an understanding of middle school math would have led Mike McCarthy to attempt the two point conversion for the win rather than kick the extra point and go to OT.
Now anyone who watched this game would say it was one of the most exciting fourth quarters in NFL history. Down by a touchdown with virtually no time on the clock, Aaron Rodgers hurled an unbelievable ball into the end zone that was inexplicably caught by Jeff Janis for the game tying TD. Or should it have been the game winning TD.
According to Morris’ middle school math, the two point conversion was the mathematically correct call. On his stat sheet it, in the last 15 seasons the two point conversion is made on 47.2 percent of attempts. Not necessarily the greatest of odds. Anyone who has ever gambled would take those odds but not when the game is on the line. Everyone who has ever watched the NFL knows that. What everyone probably doesn’t know are the next two stats: 1. Since the NFL moved the extra point attempt back, NFL kickers have had a 94.3 percent success rate and 2. In the last 15 seasons, the visiting team, which in this case was the Pack, has won only 45.5 percent of the time. OK, so 1.7 percent isn’t that big of a deal but that’s not the end of this math lesson. The Packers needed to make the extra point (94.3%) AND win (45.2%). If you multiply the two of those together you get 42.9%; the percentage chance that Green Bay would win by kicking the extra point. Almost 5% worse than going for two.
Why did I spend all this time having that little discussion? Because I wonder how often we do this in real life. Had McCarthy gone for two and missed the fans, ESPN, everyone would have questioned him. How many times in our lives do we do what everyone expects us to do? How often do we play it safe instead of taking a chance? How often do we question the prevailing wisdom or the unwritten rules?
I know that as an educator people cringe when you talk about analyzing the data. This is a real world application of using data. The common consensus is that we teach these things because we have always taught these things. Kids need to know these things. The point that kids need to know these things is not what I’m arguing. What I am saying is that by not using the data we are ‘teaching’ things that students already know. By not analyzing what students need to know, we are doing them a disservice in the long run.
The obvious question then is how do we prepare students for jobs when the market is changing all the time. The simple answer is we start to teach them the skills that have the greatest percentage of possibility to be needed in the future: critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration.
Technology is notably absent from this list because it is a subset of all four. Teaching students to collaborate using technology is far more important than teaching them technology in a vacuum. Our students are digital natives. They understand the technology as a user better than we do. They may not know how or why it works but they know how to access the world through it. Knowing how a car works doesn’t necessarily make you a better driver. Knowing how to put data into a spreadsheet is important for some professions but it’s not the technology that leads us to be better communicators, critical thinkers, creators, or collaborators.