Probability is an assessment of the chances that a particular event or outcome will occur or not. When we look around, probability is everywhere. For example, before a cricket match when the two teams toss a coin in the air, the word probability is used to refer to how likely it is that the coin will land with the heads side up!
Without even noticing it, we use probability in our daily lives. For example, your child wants to go to her best friend’s birthday party on Saturday. You decide to make a deal with her and say, ”It is certain you will go to the party if you pass your test on Friday.” In other words, the probability of her going is linked to the event of passing the test. She can study hard and increase the probability of passing the test and hence of going to the party!
Many external factors play a role in determining the occurrence of any event thus impacting the probability. It is important that we teach children to focus on the factors that they can control and influence outcomes in their favour. We should encourage them to focus on the decision-making process. For example, students who prepare for competitive exams often refer to past questionnaires. These questionnaires give them an idea which topics are important and which ones are less likely to be asked in the exam thus, allowing them to prepare for the most probable questions.
With a little practice, we can we help our children to use good decision-making processes. When children learn to observe and recognize patterns, they begin to understand the probability of possible outcomes much more accurately.
A few lessons for children to learn early:
Think in percentages, not absolutes
Early understanding that multiple factors influence an outcome helps a child accept that an outcome may be graded. Children must be taught not to say “that’s guaranteed,” and use percentages instead. For example, I have studied hard and I am 90% certain that I will be able to tackle the questions on the test. This helps them factor in the uncertain while focusing on what they can control and influence.
Keep your mind open
As Philip Tetlock says, great decision makers are like foxes —they’re nimble, flexible, and adaptable. How do you predict that there will be rain? You notice there are strong winds and thick black clouds in the sky. But these rain clouds may also drift away before it begins to rain. It is important to keep your mind open to different possibilities and be prepared accordingly. In this example, carry an umbrella, but ideally do not make a plan to go sailing!
Treat each experience with importance
Consider each decision like a little test. How did that go? What did I learn? How can I improve next time? Not all decisions may allow experimentation but most of our daily-life decisions can be taken as simple puzzles to practice skills of probabilistic thinking. We need to keep polishing our skills to better our chances of favourable decision making.
Use information to eliminate options
When kids treat each experience with importance, they begin to subconsciously develop a database of knowledge. Using this information to eliminate less likely options will leave you with the most probable outcome. For example, while traveling you may have been told that it will take you about 70-90 minutes to reach a given destination. However, you reach a fork in the road and have to decide which route to take. One shows a road distance of 150 kms and the other shows 90 kms. You simply estimate the current speed of travel and eliminate the less likely route!
Probabilistic thinking is not a skill that can be learnt in a day. Successfully thinking in shades of probability means identifying what matters. We can act with a higher level of certainty in complex, unpredictable situations. Regular access to puzzles, games and challenges in a simulated environment is a small step towards honing our decision-making processes for favourable outcomes!
“A reasonable probability is the only certainty”
– Edgar Watson Howe