The economist and dataviz blogger Jonathan Schwabish took on an unusual challenge, to introduce his son’s primary school classmates to data visualisation.
I wouldn’t know where to start — I’m still not sure of the difference between a histogram and a bar chart — but cleverly, Jonathan begins with examples of diagrams everyone is familiar with. Maps.
Teaching data visualization to kids
I then introduced the term “choropleth” and showed them this map of graveyards in the US and this map of McDonald’s (a couple of kids actually tied the two together!). I also showed them a clip of Aron Koblins’ Flight Patterns project (my son loves this one)—the simple and intuitive animation, and black and white color scheme make it easy to follow. I also showed them a video of Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viegas’ Wind Map, again, something I think they could all relate to.
He then asks the children to draw their own maps, of their homes rather than the whole world, and to add in any data they liked.
I then passed out tracing paper and, bringing up the graphs I showed them earlier in which color, dots, lines, and bubbles were placed on top of the map, I asked them to plot any data they liked. … Could they add differently-sized bubbles to their favorite rooms? Could they draw lines showing their paths through the house? What about smiley faces for the most fun room?
What a fantastic idea. I hope others are similarly encouraged to spread the word in this way. As he says in his conclusion, helping children to understand graphs is a good thing for many reasons.
I’d love to see a way to make data visualization education a broader part of the curriculum, both on its own and linked with their math and other classes. Imagine adding different shapes to maps in their Social Studies classes to encode data or using waterfall charts in their math classes to visually demonstrate a simple mathematical equation or developing simple network diagrams in science class. The combination of the scientific approach to data visualization and the creativity it sparks could serve as a great way to help students learn.