Aftermath: 4 Visual Tools to Teach Any Class Using Statistics

We math teachers often feel like our subject is kept in a dungeon. The mere mention of which evokes headshakes from parents and furrowed brows from other teachers, to say nothing of the reaction from the students.

Additionally, the subject is resistant to many educational fads and innovations. Project-based learning may be all the rage, but when you talk to math teachers in private they will admit that much of what they do looks like “chalk and talk.

Statistics provides a way to unleash the beast from the dungeon and let him roam across the curriculum. I will outline simple, rewarding ways to put statistical thinking and statistical tools in any class – including art!

Statistics provides a way to unleash the beast and let him roam across the curriculum.

This first installment of the series will present a few tools to analyze language. All are extremely easy to use and have a broad variety of applications. And they are extremely relevant; much of the internet runs on this type of analysis.

1. Google Ngram

Google has created a database of all published works dating back to 1500, though the default search is from 1800 (they seem to have added formal speeches as well.) You can see the frequency with which the word is used at any point in time for the past several hundred years, in a variety of languages. Frankly, it is incredible!

Look at the chart above, which took second to create and insert. “Creativity” did not really exist until the 1920s, and experienced a surge in the 1960s. Why?

I presented this to a group of teachers and a debate so lively ensued that I had to remind them that the point of the seminar was to look at these technological tools and not to understand the history of creativity.

You will get a similar reaction from students, and, what’s more, many ideas from the evil mathematical dungeon will sneak their way into language classes! The students will read the axes of a graph in English class! History teachers will talk about slope!

If you have the ability to project a computer screen, you can test hypotheses about these “trends” in real time. Look at the following graph:

It was suggested that innovation was replaced by creativity after the industrial era; this graph shows that they had parallel trends. Just saying the word “parallel” outside of math class is an amazingly helpful reinforcement. Showing students that hypotheses must be substantiated is helpful for any academic pursuit.

You may have (smart) students complain, “Published works are only a tiny fraction of the language that is actually used. And how did Google get ALL the published works?

This point gets to the beautifully resilient fun of statistics in the classroom: since all statistics are flawed, discussing flaws is intrinsic to learning statistics. No study or evidence is perfect; the more clearly they learn that almost every number they hear, anywhere, is faulty, the wiser they will be.

2. Google Trends

Google Trends allows you to see the “search volume” of any term, or compare the search volumes of any terms. It also allows you to see the location of the searches.

It provides a wealth of data for free. You can adjust the time period and the location (down to cities and to a few hours).

The night after a US presidential debate, for example, you can look at the search volume for each candidate during the debate.

The above search was for “gift cards” and it peaks around the Christmas season. Other seasonal trends can be found, for other reasons: words related to mood and words related to politics.

This tool provides an excellent lens with which to go “behind the scenes” of current events.

(A wonderfully “meta” aspect of many of the trends is that they are driven by student searches.)

3. Baby Name Voyager

The baby name voyager is similar to the previous tools. Give your students time, of course, to search their own names. You can look at how some names go through fashions, how others come into existence, and why others disappear.

Babies names Shirley visualized with Baby Name Voyager

This tool is a simple and fun introduction to the other language tools.

4. Textual Analysis

Many of these are simple forms of sophisticated methods of research called “textual analysis,” “lexical analysis,” or simply, “data mining.” The standard tools of textual analysis are beyond the high school level and not free, but the above website provides an approachable introduction.

Textual analysis allows people to identify patterns in specific authors’ writing and to gauge the mood of pieces of writing. (Investors have begun using it to gauge consumer confidence, for example, to guide their decisions)

Here is the first chapter of Moby Dick analyzed. Melville certainly sticks to a theme in it; more text would reveal more insights.

Textual Analysis with Voyant Tools
Textual Analysis with Voyant Tools

The next part of this series will look at the tools and techniques of data visualization. Some of them will employ tools on the computer, but others will be very low tech, amazingly fun classroom activities.


Please leave suggestions for other online tools or for interesting “searches” in the comments.


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Craig A Rodway.

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