If you’re a serious student of history and the social sciences you know that data presentations can be very powerful. (Think of national debt curves, or social class pyramids, just to name two.) But knowing that data presentations are powerful, and knowing how to actually make the kind of tables, charts, and graphs that make up a compelling data presentation are two different things. And knowing how to teach your students to make them is another thing entirely. This spring Gary and I have gotten a chance to meet and work with Richard Donnelly of Bedford High School in Bedford Massachusetts. Rich is a whiz at data visualization for teachers and students, and in this blog post we’re going to let Rich share some of his techniques and give you access to the web pages he maintains for learning and practicing them. Thanks, Rich!

Three Basic Data Visuals

One of Rich’s big insights is that you (and your students) only really need to know how to make three types of data visuals: line graphs, bar graphs, and pie charts. As Rich says, when it comes to data presentations “simple is better than complex.” This link will take you to Rich’s web page that has the slides from a conference presentation he gave on data visualization, a PDF guide to making basic data visualizations, and some great data sets on world history topics.

Google Drawing and Infographics

Rich has also worked on using Google Drawing to make infographics: visual presentations that combine different kinds of visuals to present information or arguments. As Rich describes them, “Infographics are basically visual essays.” This link will take you to Rich’s web page that has a presentation on teaching visual literacy to students, some simple instructions on using Google Drawing to make infographics, and some assignments he’s used with students along with grading rubrics.

Using Data To Answer Questions

Data presentations are great tools for working with the Four Question Method. As Rich says, “I think data can provide a good support to answering Q1 questions about the reality of a unit story. Data can reveal a larger story and the visualization make it easier to see that story. Specifically, I think data can be really good at putting substance to concepts. For example, two big important concepts with the Industrial Revolution are increased productivity and scale of production. These are tough concepts for students and text description does not have a lot of impact. Historic data makes the points clear.”

And data sets can also be helpful in answering Question Three: “Learning to work with and think about data involves learning about how to see trends and how to consider the way data can be a proxy to a larger understanding about what was happening in an event. Answering Q3 involves being able to see beyond the specifics of a historic event and make comparisons to other historical events. These are related thinking skills. The second way gets more to how statistics are useful for showing the significance of factors in historical events. In answering a Q3 question, it is important to figure out what factors were necessary and sufficient to make something happen. Answering why something happened at one point and not another involves identifying the factors that were necessary to making the event happen and separating them out from factors that were not sufficient to cause the change.”

Thanks again to Rich Donnelly for all his excellent work on this important topic! All readers are welcome to let us know if you’ve got suggestions or ideas for future blog posts. We can be reached at info@4qmteaching.net any time.