Probability in primary


Probability is quite possibly one of the most important strands in mathematics and yet it is quite often left out of the yearly math plan at school. If it is covered, it is that one unit that gets crammed in before the holiday break! Even I admit, in years past, to grabbing that bag of marbles or getting out a bunch of dice and calling it a day! Yet, probability is the basis of statistics; and statistics is one of the most important ways that we make sense of the world around us. Understanding that life’s events fall in a range from never to always, allows us to predict the outcome of future events and plan for the consequences. For example:

  • Is it likely to rain today? Pack an umbrella.
  • If I don’t practice the piano, there is a good chance I won’t get better. Or…
  • It is highly unlikely that my parents are going to feed us cake for supper!

A knowledge of  probability helps students make informed decisions. By teaching children that we can use past experiences to predict future events (theoretical probability) and that their decisions affect the likelihood of some outcomes; we are giving them tools so that they can live independently and responsibly. But understanding probability goes further than that.

“In professional life, more people use statistics than any other branch of mathematics. Experimental scientists use statistics every time they report their results, to give an indication of the accuracy of their measurements and the likelihood they may be wrong. Medical researchers use statistics to establish the likelihood that a drug or treatment will be effective. Social scientists use statistics to generalize about people’s behavior, and marketers and political surveyers put the same kind of study to practical use for the benefit their clients.  Insurance companies have a business plan that is entirely based on  their understanding of statistical probabilities; if you think about it, banks are doing the same thing with their lending, but at risk levels that they hope are much lower. Every manufacturing company applies statistical techniques to quality control and customer
satisfaction. The list goes on and on…”

Doctors Mitteldorf and Sarah, The Math Forum

Is it too early to learn about probability in primary? Never! (Ha! A probability word!) At an early age, children are intuitively aware that certain events are more or less likely to happen. Let’s see if this is true by asking Oliver (pre-school) a few questions:

As you can see, Oliver has a good understanding of what is likely and unlikely, but no language to back it up. In the early years, instruction should be informal and concentrate on building the vocabulary necessary to comprehend probability at later grades. Words such as certain, impossible, likely or unlikely, never or always, can be taught and understood.

The great thing about teaching probability in primary, is that you don’t need a separate unit on the subject. You can incorporate the language and ideas into everything you do. Here’s an example. We have family game night once a week and there is always an argument about whose game we should play. Let’s see if we can resolve the issue with an understanding of probability…

Are you more likely (heehee) to incorporate probability lessons into your everyday life now? I hope so!

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