Can Your Kid Read Graphs and Charts?

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A once-valued skill has fallen by the wayside -- but our kids will need it even more than we do.

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1996: The glory days of the chart (Reuters)

You probably have a pretty good idea how well your teenager can write, how good her reading comprehension is, and how easily she solves math problems. But here's a question to consider: Can your high-school student extract the meaning from a chart or graph?

Okay, let's stipulate that your kid probably can. What do you think about your neighbor's kid? Do you think he knows how to read a visual display of quantitative information? There's a very good chance he can't. And that's a problem.



The education world seems always aflutter with controversies over how best to teach students to write or what's the most effective way to teach mathematics. While these are important matters, involving real problems, there are other gaps and failings that also deserve attention.



I taught for the past 10 years in an independent high school for girls. Not long after starting there, I discovered that many of my students had limited ability to derive and summarize the main message from fairly straightforward charts and graphs like this one, comparing the crime rate to unemployment in the US over a twenty-year period:

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A Collaboration Between Good and Part & Parcel

When I raised the subject at a faculty meeting one day, my comment elicited wide agreement. The ensuing discussion revealed that kids handled these kinds of tasks well in science and math classes, but the skills didn't seem to transfer over to other subject areas such as the social sciences and history.



Now, this problem is surely not universal. There are certainly students who can handle these cognitive tasks well in any context. But an alarming percentage cannot. (I have not been able to find hard numbers on this and will be grateful to anyone who can provide them.) 



Part of the explanation, I suspect, is a simple aversion on the part of many to anything that smacks of math. I know; I'm in that category. I'm one of those people whose skills at extracting information from graphs and charts are stunted because I avoided developing them, preferring to rely on the accompanying text to tell me the important points I needed to know from a complicated table or graph.



Another obstacle is that we all find it harder to extract meaning from graphs and charts in subject areas new to us. One study I found indicated that this is a widespread problem, showing that even professional scientists' abilities to interpret graphs "are highly contextual and are a function of their familiarity with the phenomena to which the graph pertains."



Still another reason for the difficulty some students have with visual displays of quantitative data is that many of the old standbys -- pie charts, line graphs, dot charts and point plots, histograms, pictographs, etc. -- are getting more complicated and are being supplemented, if not supplanted, by a mindboggling array of complicated and sophisticated new graphic forms, like this network diagram, showing the relationships, based on data about recorded meetings, between UK governmental ministers and British lobbyists:

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Tony Hirst at Onlinejournalismblog.com

These graphics are obviously the result of technological advancements, which make it easier to produce more complex graphs. (See Tony Hirst's description of the computer work involved in producing the diagram above.)

Newspapers and magazines carry more graphic representations of data than they used to, and the Web is full of this stuff. Another example:

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Global Web Index

The New York Times regularly provides good examples of these cutting-edge graphics.  See this interactive chart, for example, which shows how swing states have shifted between the Republican and Democratic parties over the years.

As these visual displays become more and more ubiquitous, it is all the more important that students know how to read, interpret, and summarize the information presented. It's become an essential element of overall literacy.

But instead of working more aggressively to nurture this set of educational skills, we seem to be headed in precisely the opposite direction. The lead writers of the Common Core standards in English/language arts and math, David Coleman and Jason Zimba, dismiss the need to teach 5th graders about data and bar charts and graphs, saying such activities amount to a "fake version of developing young scientists."

Instead, they want elementary-school kids to focus on fractions. Nobody can be opposed to that, but surely there is room for both kinds of emphasis.

As students get older, it's important for them to learn not only how to be intelligent viewers of graphic representations, but wary and cautious viewers. While charts and graphs obviously are a boon to our ability to communicate information about large numbers or complicated relationships, there are also hidden pitfalls.

Statistics, like any other kind of information, are open to manipulation and distortion. We want our kids to be literate in this material so they can avoid being hoodwinked by those who use statistical figures carelessly or unscrupulously. Students need to learn how the creators of charts and graphics can misrepresent the truth: altering the baseline, changing units of analysis and comparison, using averages or means when they are misleading, not using constant dollars, not showing populations as a percentage of the base, or implying causality where none exists.

Unfortunately, unless your high school student takes a statistics course -- and only about 11 percent do -- she or he is unlikely to learn all this. So, what can you do to help your teenager develop this particular kind of literacy?

First, ask her teachers what they're doing to address these concerns in her classes. Push them on it. And teaching this sort of literacy should not be seen as the exclusive duty of math teachers or science teachers. Instructors in all subject areas where graphs and charts show up should be helping students with these skills.

Second, and more importantly, take an active role yourself in educating your kids how to read charts and graphs. Show them interesting ones. Talk about them. See if they can extract the important meaning from them. See if they can summarize the main point. If they can't do it, help them figure out how. Show them the problems with graphs that are misleading. You can start by showing them this graph that Jim Fallows posted late last week as part of a piece here on what sorts of factors predict the outcome of presidential elections.

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See if they know, from just looking at the graph, what he means when he says the graph is distorted because it makes the stock-market rise look bigger than it should. (And if you feel like probing a whole other matter, see if they can explain coherently what it means to say there has been a "rise in the stock market.")

The main point to impart to your kids is that this kind of literacy is important. They shouldn't shrug it off, nor should they be afraid of it. Show them how this kind of material can provide fascinating insights into things of real interest, with graphic representations like these:

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John Tierney

John T. Tierney is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a former professor of American government at Boston College. He is the author of Organized Interests and American Democracy (with Kay L. Schlozman) and The U.S. Postal Service: Status and Prospects of a Government Enterprise.

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