I fret with personal frustration over the public’s tendency to ignore facts in favor of sound bytes and trite analysis offered by fevered commentators. Too often dialogue disintegrates as someone expresses their agreement with the ideas of a given opinion-maker based on some vague (or crudely drawn) graphic presented in tandem with biased claims. And, of course, this happens on both sides of the political aisle. It seems as if individuals can’t see, for themselves, what the graphics do/don’t say…that the value of the graphic is based simply on it’s composition of arrows and lines (perhaps numbers) and the commentator is believed simply because he USES graphics to make his point.
And isn’t that a sad point to make. That perhaps people are more impressed with graphics than they are with the information they reveal. It leaves me wondering if the underlying problem lies in a level of illiteracy we too easily ignore. What if people don’t bother to read the graphics for themselves because they can’t.
Google Public Data Explorer offers “data visualizations for a changing world, and yet it (and a myriad of other information graphic resources) remains a mostly untapped resource in secondary schools. I’ve noted that while we may teach students the basics of create graphic information (i.e. a bit of MS Excel), I have to wonder if we take enough time teaching them to READ it.
As reported in the the UK-based Guardian’s introduction to it’s new data site, Tim Berners-Lee, MIT professor and director of the W3C credited with inventing the World Wide Web, recently said regarding the future of journalism:
[Journalism is] going to be about poring over data and equipping yourself with the tools to analyse it and picking out what’s interesting. And keeping it in perspective, helping people out by really seeing where it all fits together, and what’s going on in the country.
“Helping people see where it all fits together?” Already media moguls are focusing on multi-modal delivery models that include the creation of sophisticated information graphics. How could they not? The medium appeals to our visually centered society and succinctly presents both information and analysis in an environment where digital publishing has reduced the size of the reading plane from that of a newspaper spread to that of a laptop screen…and even smaller (think iPad or even phone screen!).
So, if more of our news and information is being presented in this format, why aren’t schools devoting more serious time (curriculum) to decoding and re-using this information. During research projects, to0 often, I see this type of information skimmed (or simply skipped) over by students in search of the proverbial “quote” on which to hinge their own ideas. What if these graphics were to be the stuff from which new ideas spring? The possibilities for deep analysis are…well…deep.
So how do we compel our students to use these rich sources of information. The first step is necessarily moving teachers to see that these are more than “data representations”–that information graphics do, in fact, require analysis, interpretation and creativity in their production and deserve the same in their consumption. We then need to encourage students to use both original and found info graphics to illustrate their thoughts and arguments. And of course, we need to teach them to cite these as authentic sources of information, rather than a simple addendum.