A Critical Need: Bringing Data Literacy to Earlier Grade Levels

Staff Writer

Austin, Texas

Ed-tech products designed to help students develop data-literacy skills are often focused on high school students and workforce development, but there are relatively few resources to support instruction in that area among younger students.

That was one of the unmet needs flagged by a group of investors and philanthropic funders on a panel staged at the SXSW EDU conference this week. They called on education companies to fill the gap by developing research-based products and services to build students’ knowledge of how to use data.

Data literacy “is just starting to make its way down [from the high school and postsecondary level], particularly into middle schools. For K-5, it’s just [the] beginning,” said Nancy Lue, senior director at the Valhalla Foundation, a philanthropy that invests in the K-12 space. “It’s definitely an opportunity area that we’re just inching towards.”

The National Science Foundation is backing those efforts, said Even Heit, acting deputy assistant director of the agency.

The NSF, an independent federal agency, is especially keen on data-literacy projects that span multiple subjects and approaches, and those that infuse data skills in areas that include sustainability, science, biology, computer science, and more, he said.

“Most of our data-science education activities are not in math classrooms,” he said. “We’re trying to take as broad a picture of data-science education as possible because we’re placing bets all over the place.”

Adapting to Learner Needs

Moving forward, Heit said he anticipates that cooperation among researchers, educators, companies in the education industry, and community organizations will be key to further developing and implementing data-literacy programs.

“Data science and data-science education are really in the sweet spot for partnerships,” he said. “We need industry partners at NSF. We want the projects that we support to have not just abstract simulations, but real data, real projects. We’re looking to form even more partnerships with industry.”

Products that have the ability to grow quickly and help large numbers of students also stand out to a funder like the NSF, which aims to maximize the impact of the projects it backs with taxpayer money.

“We don’t want every dollar to count once. We want it to count twice, three times, four times, five times. Whenever we support a project, we look to see whether that can scale.”

Another type of product that Tanya Beja, managing partner at venture firm AlleyCorp, expects to see more of in the data-literacy space is those focused on personalized learning and online learning platforms that adapt to learners’ different levels of comfort and expertise with data.

We want the projects that we support to have not just abstract simulations, but real data, real projects.Evan Heit, Acting Deputy Assistant Director, National Science Foundation

“Adaptive learning has opened up a whole new interest area of opportunity for investments that can accelerate” data literacy, said Beja.

In order to develop these products, it’s important to cultivate a stronger foundation of evidence into the most effective approaches to implement data literacy in schools. 

“There needs to be a lot more research [on] this for it to take off in K-12,” said Lue, of the Valhalla Foundation. “That’s something we and other funders are very excited to help support.”

One large hurdle data literacy providers will need to surmount as new products are developed is a lack of experience many educators have with the subject, and a lack of buy-in from district and school leaders who don’t see as much value in investing in data literacy at a young age, said Lue.

In order to make data literacy a key part of K-12 education, there also needs to be a shift in policy to count data literacy toward curriculum requirements, she said.

“There are a lot of steps to get to a world where the workforce isn’t bearing the burden of addressing this problem,” she said, “because we haven’t been more intentional in the early years.”

Image by Getty

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