Gov’t + Stats = Critical Thinking Galore


(Above:  Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey)

I am becoming more and more convinced that a government class, paired with a statistics class is a match made in heaven.

Seriously, with numbers being such a huge part of the this election (Bill Clinton: “It’s arithmetic”), coming up with ideas for meaningful assignments this week has been a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Just as I was finishing up the last problem, the Bureau of Labor Statistics comes out with a report for September that the U.S. unemployment rate for Sept was at 7.8%.  Immediately, conservative pundits begin questioning the data and timing, claiming a conspiracy.   One of my students, in fact, asked me about it on Friday.

Voila!  Opportunity!  Students have already done curve fitting, and the unemployment data for the last year provides a reasonable linear correlation (r = -0.89), so I will ask them something like:

“Given the Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment data for the last several years, please:a) Select the portion of the data that you want to analyze, and explain why you are using that portion.  Then…b) Determine whether 7.8% unemployment number is a surprise, and could be indicative of a conspiracy, or if it was fairly predictable.”

In the linked spreadsheet, I’ve already made several graphs.  I left off the most recent data from Sept, in the hopes that they think of using that as a predictor with a best-fit line, and plug the newest date into the equation for the best fit line.

The beautiful thing about this whole setup is that as a teacher, I can have student address the comments made by the pundits, and the whole issue substantively and concretely.  I don’t have to settle for their initial reaction, or push them to tell me what their parents or favorite ‘journalist’ said.   Teaching with the math gives students an opportunity to truly analyze the situation, and truly think critically, by providing some evidence with what they say, and conversely, by basing what they say upon the evidence.    I maintain that as a teacher I teach critical thinking by teaching analysis, and I teach analysis much of the time by simply having students compare things.  In this case, I want them to compare what is being said by the pundits to their breakdown of the BLS unemployment data, using their skills in linear regression, correlation, and data interpretation.

When I give them this problem, I may even say, “This work is an excellent example of, or exercise in critical thinking”, no matter how mad it might make E.D. Hirsch.

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