Prediction is an adult skill used in many professional fields, including science, medicine, finance, and insurance. Underlying prediction is the notion of probability: whether a given event is certain to happen, likely, unlikely, or impossible.

As one mathematician states, "We see probability in our everyday life, and we use it in decision making. It helps us to better understand the world around us . . . Probability, whether we know it or not, is a large part of our lives."

Current math standards recognize that children need an understanding of data and probability beginning in the early grades. A key approach is to introduce important concepts early and to revisit them "at increasing levels of complexity as students move through the curriculum rather than encountering a topic only once." (Schunk, 1991)

Work with data is woven into the Common Core State Standards, TEKS, and other standards from Grade K on. Students are asked to classify objects informally before moving on to more formal work with bar graphs, line plots, and so on. These experiences lay a solid foundation for students' work with probability and statistics in high school.

The good news is that teaching probability is fun. The topic lends itself naturally to hands-on activities and games. Furthermore, a wealth of probability resources is readily available on the Internet, both interactive and for printing out.

Some tips for introducing probability in the early grades:

  • Choose activities that focus on experimental probability; that is, that ask students to practice making reasonable estimates of the likelihood of future events based on past experience.
  • Bring out the spinners, dice, coins, two-color counters, and colored marbles and paper bags.
  • Use terms such certain, likely, unlikely, and impossible to describe events, and make sure students understand these terms and are comfortable using them. Example: Is it likely to snow today?
  • Point out the difference between chance and odds. "Chance" refers to the number of times an event might happen compared to the total number of outcomes. Odds is a ratio of the number of times the event might happen in comparison to the event not happening. For example, the chance of getting heads is one-half but the odds are 1:1. Example: What is the chance of rolling a 5?
  • Provide a way for students to collect their data, such as a tally chart or a bar graph.

Once you've assembled the activities and materials you need, go ahead and spin yourself some fun. Don't save your probability unit for the end of the year -- revisit it often throughout the school year!

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