"You can teach people to be as comfortable with numbers as they are with words," Gretchen Davis said with passionate conviction.

Davis, 46, who was chosen outstanding teacher of 1985-86 by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, is in the forefront of a significant new thrust in American education.

Just as school watchers once worried that Johnny can't read, many of today's educational critics fear that Johnny can't think--at least about numbers.

Davis is one of a cadre of pioneering teachers throughout the country who are doing something to change that. Their aim is to promote what they call quantitative literacy.

For the Record

Los Angeles Times Thursday May 29, 1986 Home Edition Westside Part 9 Page 3 Column 2 Zones Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction

Because of an editing error, a story appearing Sunday on Santa Monica High School teacher Gretchen Davis mistakenly said that the median or mode grades of a hypothetical student with four Bs and an F would be a B-. In fact, the grade would be a B.

Urgent Need for Courses

Algebra, trigonometry and other traditional math courses all have a place in the curriculum, Davis and like-minded educators say. But there also is an urgent need for new courses that will prepare students to interpret graphs, calculate odds, scrutinize opinion polls and generally make better sense of the quantitative information in their lives.

In her Santa Monica High School classroom, Davis is helping create that new curriculum. She is developing course work for high school students, including those who are not notably gifted in math, in the practical but rarely taught areas of statistics and probability.

She also is teaching other teachers, some untrained in mathematics but forced to teach it because of the shortage of trained math instructors. (The Los Angeles Unified School District alone projects a shortage of 250 mathematics teachers for the coming year.)

Traditionally thought to be too tough for pre-college students, statistics and probability usually have been reserved for the college curriculum, where they often separate the future social scientists from the English majors.

Taught in Kindergarten

But Davis is convinced that statistics and probability can, and must, be taught in high school. For that matter, she thinks they can, and should, be taught in kindergarten, a viewshared by California education officials in their most recent guidelines for mathematics in the public schools.

As Davis explained, an understanding of the fundamentals of statistics and probability is not an intellectual luxury. It is a basic survival skill that everyone, not just the college-bound

student, needs to function well in a high-tech society.

"We live in a world that's bombarded by numbers," Davis said. "If we don't have citizens who can be intelligent about the use and abuse of those numbers, we're in trouble."

Unorthodox Aids Used

To demystify statistics for her students, Davis uses thumbtacks, chocolate-chip cookies and other unorthodox classroom aids. Although such hands-on demonstrations are more typical of elementary than secondary school, Davis finds them effective in commanding the attention of those students who do not automatically admire the elegance of statistical theory.

In teaching probability, or the mathematics of likelihood, for example, Davis eschews the lifeless word problems that are the mainstay of most textbooks. Instead, she and her students go through bag after bag of M & Ms, determining the probability of getting an orange candy by first shaking one M & M after another out of the packs and counting them.

Using this down-to-earth method, a recent class calculated that the odds of an orange were about one in five. Their finding jibed with the manufacturer's disclosure that 20% of the little candies that melt in your mouth, not in your hand, are orange-colored.

Instead of assigning ho-hum, ready-made data sets, Davis has her students collect their own data on whatever subject interests them.

Sports Applications

"At this age, it's food, records, movies, cars and sports," she said of the preoccupations of her juniors and seniors. Thus, one student did a statistical analysis of the performance, year by year, of a favorite ice-hockey player and another analyzed the price of ice cream cones from various outlets on the Westside.

A de-emphasis of formulas and theory is typical of the new statistics, according to Ann Watkins, who is on the mathematics faculty at Los Angeles Pierce College in Woodland Hills.

"Nowadays we're taking a much more informal approach," she said. "We're teaching something called data analysis to a greater degree. What that is is organizing data so you can see any patterns in it."

Watkins, who serves on a joint curriculum-development committee of the American Statistical Assn. and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, described the Santa Monica teacher as both contagiously enthusiastic and mathematically smart.

Getting Their Attention

Watkins also lauded Davis' ability to involve her students.

"The idea in math is to do anything you can to get their attention," Watkins said. Davis is especially good at that, said Watkins, who finds that her own, older students pay especially close attention when the lesson is probability as it applies to the reliability of contraceptives.