Saturday, November 26, 2011

Should be our primary 'text'?

Having just returned from the ECIS Conference in Lisbon and having the opportunity to hear Hans Rosling, I would like to urge anyone who has not already downloaded/utilized the software at to do so now! It's free.

Hans' message
Hans is a great speaker, and his message of utilizing datasets to help re-construct our mindsets is a fascinating talk.  Summarized, the world is converging. The data dispels the myth of the "developing" and "first" world that still dominates the way we think of (and teach) global issues.  If you want to hear a similar speech he gave to the US State Department as a TED Talk, it's here.

However, it's more than his message that I find innovative.

More than an excellent use of technology
Granted the data compiled and shared at Gapminder is an excellent example of how technology helps us do something that simply could not be done 30 years ago. The charts and graphs can be easily customized and tell a beautiful visual story.  But, that's not the reason that Gapminder excites me.

Something more fundamental
I'd rather address the manner in which data like this is utilized. In the title, I used the word "primary", and all social studies teachers will perk up at the opportunity to utilize primary sources.  Gapminder is certainly not a typical primary source in that sense - telling a story from original materials that have not been interpreted or evaluated.

But my title was more in reference to making Gapminder the primary (as in "first") source for our social studies classrooms. As I was watching the data unfold and considering the classroom implications, my initial (undeveloped) thought was that it would be a convenient way for classrooms to gather data to support what they were learning in particular units. But in that way, Gapminder is only an organized, interactive, (cool !) encyclopedia of data.  We have to find ways to use tools like Gapminder in the classroom for more than a means to justify student research papers.)  Eg. "As can be seen, the GDP of Africa is far less compared to the countries of South Asia.")

The increased attention to 21st Century Skills - interpretation, analysis, problem solving, creativity, collaboration, etc. - requires that we re-consider the way we teach. What better way to get at so many issues than asking students to understand and interpret data to help tell a story?  Our textbooks and other secondary sources can be used to provide context and rationale to the data; but shouldn't we be asking students to construct data/story first?  Eg. "What story is this data telling us?"

Why don't we use data like this naturally in our units?

Perhaps students are not skilled enough at interpretation to come away with grand insights from this type of data? But if we aren't teaching them how to come up with the skills to see data, form their own conclusions, and ask what other evidence they would need to see to help verify their conclusions, then where are they meant to learn these skills?

Perhaps broad questions like that do not lend themselves well to self-contained units of study (WWII, the US Civil War, etc.)? There is truth in this statement. But the data assembled at Gapminder allows us to go so much further than World War II - they allow comparisons of many wars.

"What are the effects of Civil War?"
"Who 'wins' in a war, and how?"
"What are the effects of a revolution?"  
"What data might we wish to see to measure whether a revolution should be considered a success?"

Of course, these types of questions require "uncovering" and will lead to many more questions. (Great!)

So, if I had my wish, it is this. Consider the way in which a tool like Gapminder can facilitate a social studies flipped classroom. Instead of asking students to remember and understand our stories, can we increase the opportunities for students to construct their own story - and THEN see if other  secondary sources confirm, dismiss, reshape, and/or provide context to their thinking. That's how social scientists think, and we need to find ways to allow students to practice that skill.

In that way, Gapminder can really be the ultimate primary source. It's one of those sources that  allows our students to tell their story.