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Numbers In Context

Understanding the context of the numbers we see is necessary to be able to make logical assertions about the data that is presented to us. In the Wizard of Id comic to the left, for example, the artist shows us the humor of misinterpreting an 8% drop in crime. Obviously, an 8% drop in crime means that the total incidents of crime have been reduced 8%, not that robbers steal 8% less than they usually do. The point remains, however, that without proper explanation or understanding of the information presented, data can be misinterpreted or used in a different context to have an incorrect meaning.

Further, the effectiveness of data comes from already established associations that people have. Knowing, for example, that the United States has 180 days of public school a year and that Japan has 220 will generally incite a reaction in those individuals that perceive a discrepancy between the school educations of the two countries. However, there is more information that is relevant to this discussion, and it is necessary to temper one’s reaction and understand that this one statistic has been taken out of context. In the US, there are 1,003 instructional hours; in Japan, only 875, meaning American students are in school for longer total time. However, there is more to it. The National Education Commission on Time and Learning found that students in the US spent only 41 percent of the time on core subjects, such as mathematics, English, science, and history. By the time they graduate, US students will have studied these subjects for 1,460 hours, whereas Japanese students will have spent 3,170 hours on core subjects.

So, if there is a discrepancy in quality of education, it there is obviously much more involved than simply the total number of days of classroom time. The entire context of the situation must be considered to obtain a complete understanding of the variables involved.

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