controversy is an opportunity for learning

Every now and then I have one of these days when I know that my students truly understand and apply what they’ve been taught. At those moments, teaching is incredibly rewarding.

I am not one to shy away from controversial topics in the classroom. It is important for students to learn how to approach tough topics using OR and numbers, rather than by flinging personal attacks. In my intro to statistics course this semester, I used Larry Summers to make a point about the importance of variance. Originally, it was reported that Summers claimed that there might be some evidence that men were innately “better” than math than women. Naturally, I was offended when I read the original stories. But I don’t like to judge someone without knowing all of the facts. When the transcript of his controversial speech was posted online, I read it. Aside from one paragraph that would have made me cringe unless it was delivered in the perfect tone (and supposedly it wasn’t), I couldn’t find anything about Summers suggesting that men were innately better than women in math. The controversial comments were about variability in math scores, not average math scores. Apparently, it has been well documented that there is more variability in boys’ math scores, but no one knows to what extent it is nature or nurture.

After illustrating this point in class by drawing a couple of bell curves with the same means but different variances, I couldn’t tell if my students were lost or offended.

Weeks passed. Surprisingly, I found out that my students were neither lost nor offended. Two of my students not only understood what I was teaching, but they were able to teach the concepts to others (one of the highest forms of learning!). These two students are taking a class on women’s health. The topic of Larry Summers came up, and my students walked the class of mostly non-technical majors through the basic concepts, by drawing bell curves and correcting the misconceptions. The professor was so impressed that she emailed me about it. And now here I am, brimming with pride over my “kids.” It’s days like this that remind me how much fun teaching can be.

Links:

  • The Anita Borg Institute chronicles the controversy
  • Marginal Revolution explains what nearly all of the articles about the controversy got wrong much better than I could. More than three years after the controversy, we finally started seeing articles start to get some of the details right.

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6 responses to “controversy is an opportunity for learning

  • iamreddave

    Are there topics so controversial you would be afraid to touch them? Do topics like race and IQ say cause so much controversy that any increased interest they cause is outweighed by the potential negatives?

    On an unrelated note I noticed an OR problem in a punk rock song today. The Clash’s should I stay or should i go. “If I go there will be trouble if I stay it will be double” You might initially think the optimal solution is “to go” so as to minimise trouble. However this would be wrong. Being Punk rockers the Clash quite liked trouble so would have “to stay” to maximise it.

  • Laura

    > Are there topics so controversial you would be afraid to touch them? Do topics like race and IQ say cause so much controversy that any increased interest they cause is outweighed by the potential negatives?
    Yes and no. The more controversial the topic, the more I like to prepare. I heard a very provocative talk on race this year that had data that would be perfect for my class. But I did not add it to my lectures.

    > On an unrelated note I noticed an OR problem in a punk rock song today. The Clash’s should I stay or should i go. “If I go there will be trouble if I stay it will be double” You might initially think the optimal solution is “to go” so as to minimise trouble. However this would be wrong. Being Punk rockers the Clash quite liked trouble so would have “to stay” to maximise it.
    I agree. This punk rocker loves The Clash. Thanks for the wonderful mathematical interpretation–it made my day!

  • Flora Steele

    I’m glad someone has noticed that Summers has been misquoted for years!

    See pumaforsummers.blogspot.com

  • Philip

    All I could think while reading this post is that it would be a fascinating experience to teach introductory statistics entirely through examples drawn from Murray & Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve and the literature critical of it.

  • Laura

    I discovered a provocative article in Nature by trans-gender scientist Ben Barres on this topic. Barres is more critical of Summers than I am. We both agree that the innate differences between men and women don’t seem to be important in decision-making, since the social factors seem to dwarf any innate differences that may exist (for example, girls score much worse on math tests if they are reminded that they are girls before they take the test than if they are not). He writes, “To paraphrase Martin Luther King, a first-class scientific enterprise cannot be built upon a foundation of second-class citizens. If women and minorities are to achieve their full potential, all of us need to be far more proactive. So what can be done?”

    Nature 442, 133-136(13 July 2006)

    Watch a video by Ben Barres on this topic.

  • Philip

    Why So Slow? sounds like a very interesting book; I’ll have to add that to my books-to-buy list!

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