Open thread: Data visualisation in education?

Since launching my data visualisation training courses, I’ve found myself in numerous discussions about the potential scope of data visualisation as a subject in education. Specifically (and interestingly) a number of potential delegates have described their motivation being to learn the subject themselves and then find ways to impart the principles and methods to students in their schools, colleges or universities.

In recent weeks there has been a lot of focus, in the UK specifically, on the campaign to boost the teaching of computer skills in schools. Two articles were particularly spot on about this matter: a BBC piece from Rory Cellan-Jones and this follow up piece by John Naughton in the Guardian. Here are a few excerpts from these articles:

But the problem, according to those campaigning for change, begins at school with ICT (information and communications technology) – a subject seen by its detractors as teaching clerical skills rather than any real understanding of computing.

The ICT curriculum in our secondary schools has been a national disgrace for as long as I can remember. This is because it effectively conflates ICT with “office skills” and generally winds up training them to use Microsoft Office when what they really need is ICT education – that is to say preparation for a world in which Microsoft (and maybe even Google) will be little more than historical curiosities, and PowerPoint presentations will look like Dead Sea scrolls.

…they’re making the same mistake as those who saw ICT as a way of preparing kids for the world of work by training them to use Microsoft Office – ie designing a curriculum by looking into a rear-view mirror. What we ought to be doing is giving the kids the ability to operate in – and perhaps help to create – industries that nobody has even dreamed of yet.

The focus on this topic has made me recall my own education experiences.

When I was at school Computer Studies was the ICT equivalent subject, but in those days it was mainly about dry topics like mainframes, micro-computers and a fairly pre-historic approach to teaching BASIC. As a subject it did nothing for me at all. I recall the final, low-balling question on my GSCE paper went something like “What is the World Wide Web? Discuss it’s implications“. It was 1993 and nobody in my class had even heard of the World Wide Web, let alone be equipped with any knowledge about its implications (its position on the back page of the exam paper seemed to demonstrate its ‘afterthought’ status).

I’m too long out of the school education system to understand how teaching and the curricula is organised and delivered these days. Is school teaching still delivered and defined within separate subject areas or are there more opportunities for delivering cross-over subject areas? Which subject would data visualistion fall under in contemporary school education if it had to belong somewhere, presumably ICT or could it under Maths, or Art (I know, can of worms…)? What would be the appropriate level in terms of age to introduce the concepts of exploring and communicating information through visualisation?

University education is much closer to my experience, and there is a much clearer opportunity there for creating and delivering one-off modules that sit outside standard, defined subject programmes, whilst still being complementary. In my degree, Operational Research, the explorative analysis and communication of data was paramount to much of what I studied and yet there was zero coverage about the most effective means for achieving both these (it was 8 years after graduation before I even came across it as a subject). University education seems to lend itself perfectly to the concept of one-off, cross-cutting subjects to aid and assist students, not just in numerate disciplines, but across a wide range of subjects for which visual communication plays a key part in many types of student assessment.

So what do you think – how and where should the teaching of data visualisation sit within the education system? How can we most effectively equip future generations of professionals with the skills and knowledge of this vital subject?

Feel free to contribute your thoughts in the comments box below…


HallieDecember 7th, 2011 at 5:13 pm

I taught first grade (6-7 years old) in the U.S. I think there is room to start teaching data visualization even with our youngest students, and it should happen across the curriculum. They are often already exposed to examples of visual data, and are already producing their own work, they just don’t realize it. As teachers we just need to shift the vocabulary we use with our students to let them know they are communicating information visually and discuss with them why. Throughout the grade levels their presentation skills should continue to be refined.

In first grade I see data visualization easily fitting into reading comprehension and teaching students to understand non-fiction text and images. It also lends itself to math of course where our curriculum has students analyze and create simple charts. In science we are always recording our data with words and pictures. I am not currently in the classroom, but when I return I plan to implement more specific data visualization lessons into all appropriate applications.

Tom Brown (via G+)December 7th, 2011 at 5:18 pm

I’ve just seen the first chart produced by my four year old Andy – kids get this stuff immediately! It was a perfect histogram. Pretty soon they’ll have her doing pie charts though… So, any age…

But your point about universities it the right place IMO – DV would make a perfect additional module, and since forward thinking companies like #Tableau provide their software free of charge to students, there is no reason for them not to understand this BEFORE they arrive in the workplace – rather than after 10 years like I did.

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Stephen MatthewsDecember 7th, 2011 at 10:47 pm

As I indicated in a comment a couple of months ago, I would argue that data visualisation *is* being taught already, albeit not as a standalone subject in K-12 education (especially in the 12 year old plus ages). Certainly my teaching of information technology to 16 year olds, at least under my state (Victoria, Australia) mandated system, specifies data visualisation and all that comes with it as core content for that course. Furthermore, my teaching of geography for decades has involved data visualisation (as the end product of data collection, collation and analysis) as a necessary way to meaningfully portray work. No doubt other subjects, certainly the sciences and other humanities subjects tinker with it. I would say though, that only a few teachers in these subjects, and more through personal interest) really have the training and understanding of data visualisation to make it work well for them. I would set geography teachers, especially in my part of the world, apart from this because we have been doing it for years (even calling it ‘data representation/visualisation’ by name) as our stock-in-trade. As mentioned, more lately, Victorian Certificate of Education information technology teachers are also doing it in a very structured way. For those interested, can be visited and refer to pages 24-25 (Unit 2, Area of Study 1 – “Data Analysis and Visualisation”). Thanks for the blog!

Andy KirkDecember 7th, 2011 at 10:54 pm

Thanks very much Hallie, Tom and Stephen for your valuable comments! (was hoping to hear back from you again on this, Stephen, thanks for taking the time to comment again!)

Enrico BertiniDecember 8th, 2011 at 12:23 am

Very interesting topic Andy! I don’t know … in my mind school is such a conservative environment that I find it hard to conceive anything advanced happening there. But hopefully I am totally wrong!

Anyway, the way I would teach visualization is in the context of critical thinking where visualizations and charts are part of the tools used to make sense of our own thoughts.

jerome cukierDecember 8th, 2011 at 12:54 am

Hi Andy. My first computer-generated data visualization was with Excel as a business school undergrad circa 17 years ago. Looking back I do resent the way business schools in general teach charts and the like. You really get a sense why managers love (supposedly) 3D glossy pie charts. I made a few. What I find frustrating about this is that it wouldn’t take much get business schools to train hordes of great visual thinkers, maybe as little as one lecture.

from a more general standpoint one undervalued use of visualization is to support interactivity and let users play with models. reminiscing my high school years, there was that time where science classes became to abstract to be interesting or there is that one thing that you can’t apprehend, or you thought you know but you don’t. and, since everything after will be based on it you’re pretty much losing your whole year. my hope is that visualization can be put to good use so that students can get a more concrete approach of things, one they can interrogate, manipulate, view from their own angle and represent for themselves.
cheers, j

Andy KirkDecember 8th, 2011 at 10:49 am

Thanks Enrico/Jerome for your valuable comments

Katie StoferDecember 9th, 2011 at 7:50 pm

I’d just like to add that even if data visualization is/isn’t taught in formal schooling, the widespread use of visualizations good and bad is in itself teaching the topic of interpretation, at least. Outside of school, people of all ages are encountering data in many forms, so if we want to be proactive, I absolutely think we ought to be teaching about the creating and interpretation processes, both, at all levels, in and outside of formal school (such as in museums, through proper media use, etc.). I think this is a topic that could cut across many disciplines, as mentioned: science, geography, business, math, you name it, there’s data of some sort. My personal interest is adult/lifelong/free-choice science learning, so I am working to either get visualizations improved at the source, and/or help the public make sense of them in museum, media settings, on the web, etc. So I think we need education on this at all levels, from 6-7 year olds in schools, to professionals in the field, and through all sorts of informal education. I’m in the U.S.

Kevin FloraDecember 10th, 2011 at 2:51 am

Hey Andy. Great post. And… It’s right in line with where I am at. Currently, I am in a Ph.D. program at the University of Kentucky in the U.S. Although the program is titled “Educational Technology Leadership” my professors and mentors see and hear the need for data visualization to be brought into the classrooms! Like many previous comments, I believe that students (including myself) have been using andy derstanding data visualizations for quiet some time now. Just the vocabulary has changed a bit. I remember the first time I learned the water cycle. It was through a pictorial representation of a LOT of information. Yes, Enrico, schools can be conservative, but if we start with making our educational leaders aware of the need and possible improvements that schools can have through the implementation, creation, and understanding of data visualizations, then teachers, students, and stakeholders will all eventually see this ‘design’ as important for the future generations. Schools of tomorrow are influenced by our leaders today. Let’s be leaders!!! As for me, I will be studying over the next year the qualities and characteristics of ‘good’ visualizations. Right now, I’m on the research side. After the research, I will continue to grow by developing my portfolio and starting at the top with our education setting. Again, great post!!!

Naomi B. RobbinsDecember 10th, 2011 at 1:44 pm

One problem is that the charts and graphs in some textbooks provide a very poor role model for students. I gave a presentation about this at the NY Viz meetup last December that can be seen at It’s poor quality video. The camera ran for around 36 minutes before the program started. Andrew Gelman was the first speaker. He spoke on Infoviz vs. Statistical Graphics from 38:50 minutes to 1:20:44 and I spoke on graphs in textbooks from 1:20:44 to 1:54:08.

Andy KirkDecember 10th, 2011 at 5:36 pm

Appreciate all the comments, thanks so much – as I suspected there is much to explore and share about this subject.

Tony HirstDecember 13th, 2011 at 5:04 pm

@Andy – I’ve been trying to find a place for a data-and-visualisation course in the context of Open University course offerings, but still haven’t found the best way to pitch it (one imagining is of a broad brush course that would consider the whole data lifecycle, including social, legal, economic and politicial issues, as well as hands on engagement with real data sets). Data visualisation gets a small amount of coverage in some of our introductory IT and communication courses, but the course teams tend to be quite conservative wrt what should be on the syllabus and time/credit allocation mean it’s often hard to do more than the same old, same old chart types as core/key skills development.

I’m wondering what sorts of educational programmes might be supported in the context of the UK Government’s Open Data Institute when it opens its doors next year?