I’ve been increasingly concerned that data literacy is now more than ever a fundamental life skill. Of course it's always been important, after all, during the 19th century Mark Twain popularised the quote, " There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." But these are days of mass data and increased attention on spin and fake news and, as a result, our children must be alive to possible skewing of the information they are presented with. They will need to consider who collated the data, what the purpose was and how it is used. Data is often presented as factual but this is not always the case – it depends on its integrity and that has a lot of dependent factors as recent events bear out. Pupils also need to be able to understand what data is in the first place.
Thinking about this has made me question how I taught statistics in my classroom. To put it bluntly, if I could go back I’d probably tackle things very differently. For a start I might avoid the interminable drag of trying to get 30 pupils to ‘draw a bar chart’. The trouble was that on my 'need to plan' grumpy Sunday afternoons I’d resort to the internet and search for data activities. Inevitably, that would result in something really exciting to collect data about. I mentioned this to the HfL Primary Maths team at a meeting recently and we laughed and groaned about what we made the pupils collect data about – it seems favourite flavour of crisps was a winner. Coincidently, my colleague Kate Kellner-Dilks shared this actually quite interesting data on crisps on Twitter the day I wrote this blog - how serendipitous! Then I would desperately try to get my pupils to learn how to draw a scale with intervals spaced equally, with numbers on intersections and words between intersections, and the bars the same width and the same distance apart, label the axis with variables and …well you know the score. Ouch!
I understand of course the need to organise and present data; but were the days spent doing this, when they probably did something similar in every year group from Y2 on, worth it? I see now this squeezed the time taken to help pupils to interrogate the data and question it. With hindsight, I recommend plenty of time to notice scales, variables etc. without necessarily drawing as well. Instead I advise scaffolding the drawing by completing bars from tally charts on pre-drawn axis, missing intervals to fill in etc. in truth so much easier for the pupils to remain focussed on the data.
Valuing time to interrogate what the data shows us is crucial; sums, differences, most, least, increase and trends can all be rehearsed but also lend meaning to tricky concepts like difference and the chance to rehearse operational language such as more than and less than. How many more days was it rainy than sunny? Well this is the UK after all.
Beyond the curriculum on a page I have learned to love focussing on asking pupils to infer about data. Yes that’s right, infer. It’s not only a reading skill, we make inferences and deductions all the time. But we also need to test those inferences and have them challenged. Those inferences depend on a number of factors.
It’s Walk to School Week soon. Pretty much every primary school I know takes part in this so I thought about how we could not just find out how many pupils walked, drove or cycled to school but why.
My current favourite teaching point is to show pupils a walk to school graph where one of the modes of transport is … a space hopper. Yes, it makes me smile being part of Generation X where inevitably a large orange bouncy object used to laze smiling in the grass of the garden. But, if I show this amongst the other modes of transport as having zero people travel to school on one, I can ask, “Why did no one travel to school on a space hopper?” It’s helpful to have a space hopper handy at this point. What I’d like pupils to discuss is some sensible reasons why a space hopper is a rubbish (but possibly fun) way to get to school. Pupils have come up with some super answers such as;
You can’t carry your bookbag and lunch box and hold onto the space hopper
Your legs would hurt too much from all of the bouncing
It’s too slow
Nobody has a space hopper
And some more interesting reasoning
The space hopper was poorly
My space hopper isn’t pumped up, daddy hasn’t got around to it.
A lot of data requires a cause and effect response. For example, working out why sales figures dip on a Thursday. You need to collect more data to find out why. It’s not the whole story. Perhaps the shop is closed for half day on a Thursday, or there is a street market on and not so many people can get into the shop. If we can get pupils to consider that there maybe a ‘story’ behind the data, then we can get them to look deeper.
We can also present some skewed data. Much data tends to show what someone intends it to show, a classic 8 out of 10 koalas prefer yoga. A small piece of data can and often is exaggerated, but when compared to other data, tells a completely different story. So how about showing your pupils a piece of data that says 8 out of 10 children say they’d love to go to school by space hopper. Ask pupils what they think – do they believe it, why? Is that number reflected in the pupils in the class? Why might children say that? Who asked them?
Reveal that this data was an advert for a space hopper shop. What do they think now? (It's okay, sadly I know those shops don't exist.)
Show them that after a week trying the space hopper 0 children asked said they’d love to travel to school by space hopper. Ask why the shop didn’t show this piece of information as well? Make the point that people often choose only the bits of data that they either agree with or want others to see. You may want to let them know you made up all of this data and people can also do this.
Finally do pupils think the data for modes of getting to school will be different after Walk to School Week? Why? Pupils could conjecture what that same data may look like on a rainy day versus a sunny day, summer term versus spring term and in a small school in a village or a large school in a city.
Come on, get on your space hoppers and enjoy Walk to School Week.