Visual Data

Numbers tell stories*. The difficulty is in getting them to do so in a way that humans understand.

A side project (feasible?) I’m currently working on for work is a functional, real time data dashboard. In my mind I can picture the end result of a dashboard that serves up relevant and understandable data that teachers and administrators can use to shape the direction of their school and classes.

This is an enormously difficult task. Tracking multiple variables and presenting them in a way that the average teacher, parent, and student can read requires a profound knowledge of statistics, coding, and graphic design (not to mention a bit of cognitive psychology).

Whenever I encounter such difficulties I always find myself wondering when “the big intelligences” are going to create the tools that open up possibilities for the layman and woman. For example, my mom used to balance a checkbook using graph paper and an old (2 foot by 2 foot) calculator. It took her hours. Now I just have Mint do it for me with its ever so cool graphing apps to display my spending habits (my major weakness: alt-bluegrass).

I want the app that takes datasets and turns them into stories.

Google (any surprise?) and Microsoft (see Pivot Post) are starting to tackle this problem. It’s easy to get lost in the data subsets that Google’s Public Data Explorer has available. Want to see Ohio’s personal income per capita get kicked in the face by other states? Check out this fun graph:

For a thought experiment, swap out Ohio and use students…or classes…or schools…or socioeconomic classes…or (gasp) teachers. A short, animated display of data allows you to connect the dots quickly and immediately. Google lets you upload your own datasets (but it still takes some knowhow). When this becomes drop dead easy, why not use it constantly in education?

Final datashare – I love this 4 minute history lesson that really hits home. A social studies class could do a lot with this:


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And, in my opinion, good storytelling is good teaching.

Connecting with the Creative

There are some 7.2 million teachers in the United States. Some are good, some are bad. Some are luddites and some are patiently waiting the singularity.

The biggest trick for me, as a teacher (or in my current case, semi-teacher), is to connect with other creative educators who think outside the box. In the past I always could find a few in my district (or maybe, if I was lucky, in my school). But even in those cases you sometimes suffer from group think. For better or for worse, your lens on the educational field is colored by district policies, goals, etc.

But a few inventions have really changed this problem of connecting with the creative and intelligent teacher masses. One invention is the teacher blog. Many super star teachers blog and share what’s going on in their classroom. They seek each other out and comment on each others’ blogs. They get into pedagogical arguments that challenge the status quo. They brainstorm ideas and failures.

They keep learning (something a disturbingly large portion of teachers stop doing after year 5).

Dan Meyer posts a short commercial that sums up, from his perspective, how this works. Take a look.

ADE Application Video — Dan Meyer from Dan Meyer on Vimeo.

For me, this is were all the fun is in the profession. Learning new things. Being pushed to try things in different ways. Trying to define (and redefine) excellence and then trying to reach it.

What a cool job.