Interpreting data: How do we get students to think critically about data?

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to get my Year 9 students to think about where the data they are looking at comes from. They can accurately draw and read from graphs but they just take the numbers at face value. Describing data is fine but even a ‘to what extent is x true?’ question results in a sea of confused faces. In the world of my students things are black and white as numbers are just numbers; they either tell you something or they don’t. But thinking geographically about data means having to unpick it; where does it come from? What does it mean? How reliable is it? How valid is it? This is my challenge for this half term.

We’ve been studying the north-south divide in the UK. To start off with we looked at wealth data and why the data on wealth per region might be limited. With a lot of prompting, we started talking about the limitations of using averages and unpicking how different people earn different amounts of money. We moved onto looking at average wage ranges per region and this prompted a bit more discussion and, with a very fixed writing frame, we wrote a paragraph on the extent to which there is a north-south divide in wealth shown in the data. The paragraphs were well written and used a range of data to back up points and we seemed to be getting somewhere. But this was all very teacher led and when presented with data on life expectancy by region, we were back to the confused faces. My students could follow my lead but this approach had not helped them to become more independent; they need to start questioning evidence for themselves and coming up with their own justified conclusions.

Recently, and in the completely different context of conflict resolution, I was reminded of the ladder of inference and I started wondering how this might help; could the stages or rungs of the ladder as you analyse what has led to a certain situation be adapted to promote thinking critically about data?

The ladder of inference starts with reality and facts and argues that you select a certain message from the facts to interpret a reality based on certain assumptions. From here you develop your conclusion which leads to certain beliefs about what the world is like and, in turn, leads you to specific actions (i.e. leads you to interpret future data based on the assumptions made and conclusions drawn). Mind tools talks through the ladder in more detail at https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTMC_91.htm within the context of conflict resolution and avoiding jumping to conclusions in conversations (it’s worth a read anyway from a developing leadership awareness perspective). Some teachers in the USA have posted on using the different stages with primary aged students in science and maths to develop their learning. I want to now look at how I can turn the stages of the ladder of inference into a learning tool for my students so they start interpreting and analysing data at a deeper level by moving up the ladder of inference. I’m also thinking it could help with analysis of internal tracking data as it should force me to really analyse and reflect on the data and to put the assumptions about classes and students to one side.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

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