Monday, 21 August 2017

Methods of Last Resort 5: Median and Mean.

Lets see if these seem familiar:

Median = middle number in a data set when the set is ordered.
Mean = total of the data set shared equally between the number of data points (or possibly "add them all up and divide by how many there are", but if you still use this, then see my blog here).

In the main, perfectly acceptable approaches to finding median and mean. Note I don't use the term average here: I think a lot more work needs to be done to separate the finding of mode, median and mean with the concept of average, and will blog about that at some future point. For now I want to concentrate on the process of finding median and mean rather than any link they have to the concept of average. Now consider the following:

1) Find the median of the list 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 13, 10.
2) Find the median of the list 3, 2, 1, 6, 10, 9, 8.
3) Find the mean of the list 7, 9, 10, 11, 13.
4) Find the mean of the list 106, 104, 108, 107, 108.

To anyone that understands the ideas of median and mean,  these questions are a bit different, in that they don't require the definitions provided above. Let us tackle them in pairs.

Firstly the median. In both of the cases above the middle value is the median, and the fact that the lists are not in order makes precisely 0 difference. Now I can hear the arguments already, "yes but these are very contrived data-sets", "yes but that won't work a lot of the time" and I understand where they are coming from. But the point is, as a competent mathematician I get that in these cases there is no need to order. If our goal is to produce competent mathematicians in our pupils, to have pupils that understand these concepts properly, then surely they should understand this as well? And it can't be blamed on my education beyond GCSE - I did precisely no study of statistics beyond GCSE. I had choices for my modules at A-Level and so did all Core and Mechanics, and then my Degree was all in either pure maths or maths modules that linked to classical mechanics and physics. There was no statistics content at all.

A possible solution to this is to re-define the median as something like "the value in the middle position of a data set if all positions below are numerically smaller and all positions above are numerically bigger". Honestly though this definition seems overly convoluted for such a simple concept. There are plenty of times when re-ordering the list is the best strategy, even if it wouldn't be completely necessary (for example 3, 2, 1, 8, 6 only requires the switching of the first and third digit). The point I think is that pupils need to understand what the ordering is trying to achieve, and are shown explicit examples of when this isn't necessary. The ordering of the list can then be treated as a 'Method of Last Resort', something you do when the median is not already in the correct position or very close to the correct position.

Now questions 3 and 4 on the mean. Again as a competent mathematician I understand that I don't need to find the totals in these questions. In the first I can see that 7 and 13 are equally spaced from 10, as are 9 and 11, so these differences are going to even out and make the mean 10. Interestingly, I am not sure I would make the same argument if the list was 13, 9, 11, 10, 7 - I think if presented with this list I would begin to total it and then probably see that the 13 and 7 will combine nicely along with the 9 and 11. In question 4 I can see that I only need to total the 6, 4, 8, 7, and 8 and then find the mean of these 5 numbers before just adding the mean to 100 (to be fair this is something I came across when teaching myself the MEI S1 and S2 units so I could teach my Further Maths A-Level groups - it is called linear coding). Whilst this might mean we could choose to avoid highlighting this particular property of mean at GCSE (although I can't see a good argument for doing so really) it still illustrates that there are other ways of calculating the mean. Again we could solve this by re-defining what we mean by "mean" to better capture the 'evening out' idea, but this would see to again be a bit of overkill. I think the point here is that we should aim to secure understanding of mean to the point where pupils are able to identify whether the total needs to be found or not - totalling becomes a method of last resort to be used if other more efficient methods are not easily identifiable.

As I have been writing this blog, this has highlighted to me what appears to be a subtle difference between the ideas of median and mean and the accepted process for finding them. The idea of median is this idea of centrality, and an accepted process for finding it is ordering. The idea of mean is the idea of evening out the distribution, and totalling then dividing is one way of accomplishing this. I need to consider more what this means for my teaching practice. In the meantime what I will say is that I definitely think we need to be trying to secure the understanding necessary in pupils so that they can discriminate between times when the accepted process is the best, and when it isn't

For those that may not have followed this blog sequence from when I started it following my session at mathsconf, I will reiterate what I have said before - I am not saying whether you should lead with this, or lead with the standard approach before pointing out these special cases. That judgement needs to be made for classes by the teachers that work with them week in and week out. What I am saying is that I passionately believe that our pupils deserve to see these sorts of examples at some point rather than not at all. If we are truly going to teach to develop understanding in our pupils then we need to include this as part of the understanding of median and mean.

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