Go big or go home!

On Tuesday, my good friend Dr Michelle Dalrymple won this year’s Prime Minister’s Science Teacher award. It was so great to be able to fly down to Christchurch with Maxine Pfannkuch to watch the live streaming of the award ceremony with Michelle, her family and her colleagues at Cashmere High School. Michelle was the first mathematics and statistics teachers to win the prize, and it couldn’t have gone to a more deserving teacher!

You can read more about the awesomeness of Michelle in the links below:

In her acceptance speech, Michelle thanked me for being her “statistics hero”. Well, turns out she’s also mine and here’s just one example of why!

After a year or so after I moved from teaching high school statistics to teaching a very large introductory statistics course, I had conversation with Michelle where I complained about how much I missed doing the kinds of hands-on interactive activities that are so important for teaching statistics. I told her what I was being told by others at the university level: that you just can’t do those kinds of things with large lectures, there’s too many students, it won’t work, things could go wrong, not all the students will want to do this, etc.

Michelle listened to me first and then suggested that I try doing something small initially. She told me about one of her activities – comparing how long it takes to eat M&Ms using a plastic fork vs chopsticks – and suggested doing this with just 10 of my 500 students. She explained that I could ask for volunteers, bring them down to the front of the lecture theatre, record the data live, and then use this within the same lecture. I tried this activity out and it worked brilliantly – just imagine a whole lecture theatre of students cheering on students eating M&M’s!

In her pragmatic way, Michelle helped me remember that there’s always a way to do what you know is best for teaching and learning. Her encouragement and attitude to “make it happen” inspired the first of many interactive activities I have since developed to use in my teaching of intro stats. It’s natural to focus on the limitations that a teaching environment or system presents, especially for very large introductory statistics classes of over 300 students. But what Michelle helped me re-affirm in terms of my teaching approach for “large scale teaching” is that it can be more helpful and rewarding to think of the opportunities that working with such a large group of students offers.

Which is one of the reasons why we (Rhys Jones, Emma Lehrke and I) have set up a new sub blog that focuses specifically on teaching large introductory statistics courses. It’s called “Go big or go home!“. In this blog we will share our experiences with trying to build more interactivity and engagement within our very large lecture-based classes. I know that many people reading this blog are statistics teachers based at the school level, so I haven’t assumed you will want to receive emails about new posts for this sub blog. Check out the Go big or go home! blog if you’re interested in reading more and subscribing to this new blog.