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Taking Control Over the Data Narrative

By Kip Glazer
 | Jan 25, 2017

When I tell people how much I love statistics, data, and numbers, I often get a funny look, especially when people find out I have been an English teacher. But mathematics is a universal language! Yes, I love great literature, but I also adore numbers!

Even if you do not love numbers like I do, you might be able to appreciate the simple fact that data create a narrative, and taking control of the narrative is more important than ever before with the amount of data that we now have access to. Besides, our daily lives are filled with conversations about numbers, as we have all heard statements such as, “The median housing price is…” or “The average snowfall for this year is…” Whether you want to, we could probably all agree that being able to understand and work with data is extremely important. The following are some suggestions on how to work with data.

Know that sampling matters

Any lover of history would remember the famous picture of President Truman holding a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune that said, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Since then, we have had many instances of data being incorrect because of who answered the questions. When looking at any data, we should remember who answered and in what context, which leads to my next point.

Be aware of the averages

To draw accurate conclusions, we should take time before making judgments about numbers, especially averages and the trend they are supposed to tell. I remember looking at performance data with my English department one year. We received graphs for tests for two years. The graphs showed the averages of a standardized test for ninth, 10th, and 11th graders over two years. Someone asked, “Does this mean the averages went up from last year to this year?” To that I replied, “No. It doesn’t. The group that is now 10th grade performed extremely well when they were in ninth grade. However, their performance dropped by 10%, while the current 11th graders’ performance dropped only by 5% from what they did in 10th grade. If you factor in the increased in difficulty for the test, our 11th graders are doing much better than the 10th graders.” Rather than simply looking at the average, we must consider the context of the data and what the average actually says. After all, if you stick one foot in ice water and the other in boiling water, the average would be warm even though your one foot is frozen and the other is burned!

Verify the scales

Another thing to remember when looking at statistics is that the scale matters. For example, if you heard that a school has a score of 800, would you be impressed? Once I tell you many schools’ Adequate Yearly Progress score is supposed to be between 0 and 1,000, you would realize that 800 is a solid number. What if I told you 800 was someone’s SAT Math Subject Test score? You would be impressed because 800 is the highest score a student can receive on that test.

Question the questions

When discussing data, we must remember the importance of the right data collection tools. Asking good questions is vital in all data analysis. Some say standardized tests do not tell us how well our students are doing. I say it does tell us something; it doesn’t tell us everything.

Fortunately, we have lots of tools that allow us to illustrate data easily. For example, Plotly allows you create graphs and charts easily and quickly. It’s three-panel dashboard offers simple options for you to enter data and create different charts. ChartGo is another website that allows you to create different charts. You can also import Excel or CSV files. But my favorite data illustration tools have to be Wordle and WorldClouds. As an English teacher, I used this tool with my students often. For example, we created a word cloud for the Gettysburg Address. It shows the repeated words in the speech to quickly discern the author’s purpose. My students and I had frequent discussions about the author’s purpose as we looked at the word choice.

Nate Silver, the editor-in-chief of ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight and author of The Signal and the Noise, once said people think they want information when what they really want is the knowledge. The bottom line is that having good data helps all of us to make better decisions. By accepting that we must learn to work with data and becoming critical about how they are collected and analyzed, educators can model a good use of data to our students.

Kip Glazer is a native of Seoul, South Korea, and immigrated to the United States in 1993 as a college student. She holds California Single Subject Teaching Credentials in Social Studies, English, Health, Foundational Mathematics, and School Administration. In 2014, she was named the Kern County Teacher of the Year. She earned her doctorate of education in learning technologies at Pepperdine University in October 2015. She has presented and keynoted at many state and national conferences on game-based learning and educational technologies. She has also consulted for Center for Innovative Research in Cyberlearning and the Kennedy Center ArtsEdge Program.


1 comment

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  1. C. Sellmyer. | Jan 31, 2017
    I taught elementary school for about 40 years.  We had fabulous units teaching propaganda techniques. The political campaigns, alternative facts, and fake news of today would have fallen on deaf ears if we still taught propaganda techniques today. 

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