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jmunoz

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Reply with quote  #1 
I was blown away this morning when I watched two short movies about data exploration software called TinkerPlots. The software is marketed to schools for kids grades 4-8. I love the idea that kids in school can get their hands dirty visually exploring data. And I'm even more excited that they have this tool available to them. Why has TinkerPlots flown under our radar for so long? It's been around for at least 4 years.

The designers of this software deserve praise for creating software that gets out of the way (a Few-ism, I think) and lets the user explore the data using simple commands. I will happily shell out the $89 to play with TinkerPlots.

Unfortunately, the Tinkerplot website makes it a bit difficult to see examples of the software in action. You can see some quicktime movies showing TinkerPlots at work here and here. Here's a listing of all TinkerPlot movies.

This software isn't nearly as sophisticated as some of the software mentioned on Stephen's site. But, as da Vinci said, "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."

Would love to hear your thoughts on this. Is anyone out there using TinkerPlots?

John C. Munoz
http://bzintelguru.com


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sfew

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Reply with quote  #2 
John,

I'm surprised that software with this level of sophistication is targeting kids as young as grade 4. If kids this age can actually use this software, they'll be able to move on to more advanced tools with ease. I'm excited by the possibility of kids getting exposure to data analysis in this manner at such a young age. I'm curious what others--especially parents and teachers--think about the accessibility of this tool to kids this age.

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Stephen Few
JockMac

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Reply with quote  #3 
This application is interesting but I am skeptical that it will be an effective education tool.  Educators are very enamored with statistical analysis because it feels much more concrete than mathematics like multiplying numbers together using the standard algorithm or solving for a variable using an algebraic derivation.   The problem is that most educators in grades K-8 are very weak in mathematics and don’t understand that pictures and calculators are inherently less accurate than an algebraic derivation.  We need accuracy to avoid disasters like the explosions of the space shuttle and Enron.  Given their weakness in math, K-5 educators have been moving away from teaching math facts and the standard algorithms over the last 20 years and toward investigations that involve the sorting of M&M.  The circles in this application look like computerized M&M candies.  However, if students don’t learn their basic math facts and the standard algorithms in K-5, they flounder when math gets more abstract in high school algebra.  Students really die when they get in a real statistics class, which requires both algebra and an understanding of limits to move from a plot of data to a mathematical formula describing that plot.  The fundamental problem with this application is not the user experience, which I think is interesting, but how it will be used by the typical educator who does not have the math background to help the students understand that an informal sketch of a distribution (see the end of the video) should only be used informally and that there is a mathematically sound way to analyze data that they will learn after they take calculus.
konold

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Reply with quote  #4 
I'm the designer of TinkerPlots and would be happy to answer questions you have about its development and also offer my view of why we should be teaching data analysis at the middle school and why we should not think of it as mathematics.
sfew

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Reply with quote  #5 
Cliff (Konold),

In my mind, there's clear benefit in teaching data analysis to middle school students, but I'd like to hear why you don't think we should think of it as mathematics. I suspect that I know why you feel this way, but I don't want to make any assumptions.

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Stephen Few
konold

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Reply with quote  #6 
Stephen,

My claim that data analysis is not mathematics was a rather quick reaction to JockMac’s argument, which I interpreted as saying that we shouldn’t be teaching statistics until we can  do so in a “mathematically sound” way.  I disagree with this for several reasons, among them that the field of statistics itself long ago outgrew its calculus foundation.  I hear versions of this argument frequently now, and I think it was the underlying rationale for why the NCTM’S Focal Points banished statistics and probability to footnotes after having put them on equal footing with algebra and geometry in their 1989 and 2000 Standards.  George Cobb has a few articles in which he describes what he sees as the fundamental differences between mathematics and statistics, differences which historically have made for tense relations between the two disciplines.  He claims that at the heart of these differences is that “In mathematics, context obscures structure…. In quantitative reasoning, context provides meaning.”  For this reason, statistics educators in the last 20 years have emphasized the importance of having students work with real or realistic data and to keep the statistical inquiry always grounded in the context under investigation.  But this requires that, in the math classroom, students examining data on, say, global warming, really spend time thinking and learning about climatology.  This is impractical and makes rather heavy demands on mathematics teachers.  I would rather we spend only a little time in math class in the middle school on statistics, and move the bulk of student experience with data and data visualization into science and social studies. Unfortunately, its only official residence currently is in the math curricula.

sfew

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Reply with quote  #7 
Cliff,

I know that Jock Mackinlay cares a great deal about the way that math is being taught (or is failing to be taught) in schools today. Perhaps Jock will respond to your explanation.

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Stephen Few
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