Data literacy in education: Understanding the benefits, advantages, and barriers
Even in a data-driven world, data literacy isn’t automatic. Student data literacy outcomes have actually gotten worse over the long term — beyond the unsurprising declines during the pandemic.
“Students need to be exposed to data literacy skills throughout elementary, middle, and high school,” says Randy Kochevar, director of the Educational Development Center’s Oceans of Data Institute. “We need to help teachers adapt.”
It’s hard to overstate the importance of data literacy in education today. Gartner defines data literacy as “the ability to read, write, and communicate data in context.” Teachers, students, and education professionals would all benefit from stronger data literacy skills. But with so many topics already on the curriculum, how should teachers integrate data literacy into the classroom?
As it turns out, building data literacy activities into school curriculum can make teachers’ lives easier. Read on for a comprehensive guide to understanding the benefits and advantages of focusing on data literacy in the classroom, barriers to teaching data literacy, and data literacy resources for educators.
What is data literacy in education?
Ellen Mandinach and Edith Gummer started the conversation about data literacy in education in their 2013 paper A Systemic View of Implementing Data Literacy in Educator Preparation. They defined data literacy in education as: “the ability to understand and use data effectively to inform decisions.”
They specified that this ability is “composed of a specific skill set and knowledge base that enables educators to transform data into information and ultimately into actionable knowledge.”
That skill set and knowledge base provide many advantages in education. Data literacy empowers students in school and prepares them for life and career success in a data-driven world. Data literacy also gives teachers tools to improve their teaching, reduce their workload, and connect better with individual students.
Data literacy benefits in education
Why is data literacy becoming a key skill set in the 21st century? While you may associate data literacy with computer science professions, it’s time to think bigger. Growth in computing power and storage have made data-driven decision making central to every industry. Teaching students to understand and communicate with various types of data puts them on a path to success in any career.
But beyond the importance of data literacy in business, information literacy and a baseline understanding of data are now basic life skills. As of 2023, 64.4% of the world’s population were internet users. Everyone who uses the internet or social media needs a basic understanding of data to know how to judge the information they find online and how to protect their personal data, but a large-scale Stanford History Education Group study in 2016 found that 80% of middle school students looking at a website’s homepage couldn’t tell the difference between news content and a paid ad.
It’s about time for the education system to embrace the benefits of information literacy and data literacy in education. Policymakers may debate the advantages and disadvantages of emphasizing data literacy in education — but the trend is clear. Data literacy is a vital life skill.
As Ina Sanders wrote in Cambridge University Press, “today’s citizens of datafied societies require an extended critical big data literacy.”
Let’s explore the advantages of data literacy in education, such as improved decision making, problem-solving, and critical thinking.
Benefits for students
“Effective use of data empowers us to make objective, evidence-based inferences and fundamental decisions affecting our lives, both as individuals and among societies.” In the Educational Development Center’s Call to Action to Promote Data Literacy, a panel of 12 experts laid out the case for teaching data literacy to students.
The panel agreed that a data-literate individual can “identify, collect, evaluate, analyze, interpret, present, and protect data,” and “understands, explains, and documents the utility and limitations of data by becoming a critical consumer of data, controlling his/her personal data trail, finding meaning in data, and taking action based on data.”
Those competencies deliver many lifelong benefits for students, including:
- Information literacy and media literacy based on critical thinking
- Communication skills to explain information clearly and make persuasive arguments
- Critical thinking and evaluation skills to ask the right questions
- Empowerment over personal data by understanding their own data trails
- Data-driven decision-making skills to take action based on trusted information
Benefits for teachers
For teachers, the most obvious benefit of data literacy is a better understanding of student learning progress. Data literacy equips teachers for data-driven decision making, such as how to iterate on teaching strategies and develop high-quality lesson plans faster.
But don’t think of student data analysis as an extra layer of work for teachers. Student data can become part of the classroom experience, and become a powerful tool for student learning.
- Motivate students by giving them ownership of their learning goals
- Reduce workload by enlisting students to use tools that help you track their progress
- Connect to students with a data-driven understanding of their characteristics and what works for them
Data literacy advantages in education
Education is increasingly becoming an evidence-based profession, with outcomes determined by testing and metrics. Students’ future career success — and ability to navigate a data-driven world — is also increasingly tied to their data competencies.
Teachers and schools that leverage data in learning environments enjoy distinct advantages:
- Measuring and scaling success in education programs
- Making better instructional decisions for individual students
- Assessing students’ readiness for advancement and college or career
Integrating data literacy into the curriculum
Most students already learn data science basics in a science class. Students learn how to read and create graphs, how to record measurements, and how to create datasets. Students learn about the peer review process, repeatability, and to question uncited data.
With many students worldwide using the internet daily, teaching data literacy can’t wait, and should not be confined to any one school subject. Education for younger students needs to catch up and start teach the data skills needed for judging information sources and making data-based decisions as a general life skill.
Data literacy can be integrated into the curriculum in many ways. Hands-on teaching methods are always the most engaging way to demonstrate data collection and use of data. Science fairs or other presentations require learners to practice data communication skills including data visualization.
Best practices for teaching data literacy
Even Heit, acting deputy assistant director of the National Science Foundation, described the agency’s support of data literacy in education to EdWeek.
Berkeley’s School of Information online provides strategies for teaching data literacy including best practices like these:
- Start small with familiar examples. Flipping coins, rolling dice, taking measurements, and creating charts are good ways to introduce data topics.
- Make it personal. Encourage students to incorporate their favorite subjects or apply data to their hobbies to make lessons relevant and memorable.
- Use everyday language. Remember to define new vocabulary.
Barriers to data literacy in education
At the 2023 SXSW EDU conference, a panel of ed-tech investors and philanthropic funders identified a need for more resources to teach data literacy skills to younger students. But a lack of resources and inadequate teacher training create hurdles for teaching data literacy skills. Many educators lack experience and confidence in data literacy, especially at lower grade levels. If teacher data literacy is low, how can their students develop an understanding of data necessary to use data in a data-driven future?
Worse, resource-strapped districts and educators may feel forced to choose between teaching data literacy and teaching other skills. State education boards and legislatures, districts and school leaders need to buy in and shift policy to count data literacy toward curriculum requirements. Then teachers can get the training they need and commit lesson time to teaching data literacy skills.
Teachers can also take the initiative to cultivate data skills and promote data literacy:
- Take advantage of professional learning opportunities, such as teacher education in-service days
- Develop data literacy skills outside of work by exploring data-related tools and data-driven hobbies
- Support data literacy in education by contacting school district leaders and policymakers
There are many online courses and data literacy training materials to build your own data competencies. Most are designed for a business audience, but provide tools and skills that you can transfer to the classroom. For example, you can start with free data literacy training courses from Qlik.
Conclusion and more resources
If you think about it, data literacy has always been embedded in education. We just haven’t always called it that. But as data becomes more important to students’ daily lives and future careers, it’s more important than ever to teach data literacy.
The good news is that data literacy doesn’t need to be its own unit. From biology to history, from math to art, every school subject provides opportunities to use data. With the right training and tools, teachers can embrace data and use data to get students more involved in their own learning process.
Teachers need the support of policies and training in order to successfully teach data literacy skills to their students. As students, teachers, and interested citizens of a data-driven world, it’s up to all of us to help policymakers understand the value of data literacy skills. You don’t have to be a teacher, or even a parent, to encourage your local school board to help teachers by providing adequate professional development opportunities.
For more information on how to learn and apply data literacy skills, read our article Mastering Data Literacy: Developing Data Literacy Skills.
What does it mean to be data literate as a teacher?
Mandinach and Gummer’s article What does it mean for teachers to be data literate: Laying out the skills, knowledge, and dispositions is the seminal work defining data literacy for educators. Through extensive surveys, research, and data analysis, authors identified seven elements of data teachers can use:
- Content knowledge
- General pedagogical knowledge
- Curriculum knowledge
- Pedagogical content knowledge
- Knowledge of learners and their characteristics
- Knowledge of educational contexts
- Knowledge of educational ends, purposes, and values
And five data literacy activities to include in teaching practices:
- Identifying problems and/or framing questions
- Using the data
- Transforming data into information
- Transforming information into a decision
- Evaluating outcomes
Where can I find data literacy teaching resources?
If you’re an educator, these resources and activities can help you start integrating data literacy into your classroom and curriculum:
- Strategies for teaching data literacy from the Berkeley School of Education
- Glossary of data literacy terms to know from the Berkeley School of Information
- A foundation for student goal-setting from Edutopia
- Lessons for teaching data literacy from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
- Teaching resources from Partners in Data Literacy
- Science lessons and projects: data collection and analysis from the Exploratorium
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