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Data literacy skills: what they are and how do we teach them to our students?


We have access to more information than ever before. As the world has dealt with transitions in how we live, learn, and work, everyone has had to adapt in one way or another. Technology continues to evolve, new resources are becoming available, the world of work is changing and the skills that our students need now will not necessarily be the same that they need in the future. They will need to understand how to navigate a highly digital world and carry out various tasks that, in years past, were done without technology. In short, data literacy skills should be a priority in schools. Let’s unpack this!

Understanding data literacy skills: What does it mean to be data literate?

When it comes to data, we can distinguish between data literacy and data science. As we assess students or gather data in an experiment, for example, we use it to make decisions in our teaching practice or other work. Data science is taking this information, interpreting it, and finding patterns. 

Our instruction is often informed based on the data we receive from assessing students in a variety of ways. This helps us understand where students are in the learning process and adjust our instruction as needed. In the world of work, data science skills are an essential component.

 For this reason, the more time students have to build data literacy skills by gathering, sorting, and analyzing data, the better prepared they will be. To be data literate means that they understand what data represents, figure out how to process it and use data to guide their next steps or to make a final decision. ​While being data literate is more of a technical skill, simply put, it is a way to analyze, interpret, visualize, and act upon the information being received from the data. It serves as a guide for our next steps, regardless of the line of work we are in.


Read more: Digital literacy vs. Computer literacy: Students need to develop both


What does data literacy mean for teachers and students? 

Educators must keep informed about the types of skills that will be needed in not just the next few years, but further into the future. In order to best prepare our students, we have to put into practice ways to seek and process the information or data that we are receiving and using in our work. We need to help students build skills that foster a data culture, defined as the “collective behaviors and beliefs of people who value, practice, and encourage the use of data to improve decision-making.” 

Preparing for a growing demand in data literacy skills

Students need to develop these skills because they will need to make decisions in their personal and professional lives. This is why all educators need to have resources and strategies to teach about data literacy at all levels. For example, business success can depend on having data literacy skills. 

For any educator who has ever said or thought, “I’m just a ( fill in the blank with the grade level or content taught) teacher,” when it comes to data and digital literacy, we all have a responsibility to our students and ourselves. We need to find resources regardless of the content area or grade level taught so that together we are providing ongoing instruction and support for students.

Filling in important data literacy roles

Over the past couple of years, STEM skills have increased in demand in the workplace.  Schools are constantly seeking resources to build these skills in order to fill the predicted 3.8 million jobs that require STEM skills. There is also a great demand for data literacy as 82% of employers expect employees to be data literate. For example, the need for statisticians is “expected to grow almost 34% from 2016 to 2026, with data scientists being particularly high in demand, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.” ​If we can spark an interest in data science and other careers where students need to be highly data literate, then we will be better prepared for the future and in many different areas of work and life.


Read more: Helping students develop job skills through the use of edtech


How to prepare as a teacher for a data literacy skills-driven future

As a result of this increased need, more schools in grades K through 12 are starting to offer courses in data science. It can be added as a lesson,  a unit of study, or, if schools have adequate staffing, offer a course that can be shared and used across grade levels and content areas. Beyond the K-12 school experience, students may continue to build data literacy skills in college or start a career in which these skills are essential and may even be a requirement for the position. 

Some colleges have had data science degree programs for years, and more are beginning to offer them. Depending on a student’s major, some courses require students to demonstrate competency in data science as a prerequisite. For these reasons, it is important to provide more challenging learning opportunities so we can best prepare every student for what lies ahead.

Finding resources to teach digital literacy to students

For some schools, data literacy may be included as part of the math curriculum, or, depending on school size, offered as an elective course. As of now, 65 schools in the United States are offering a course called Introduction to Data Science, which is a full-year course. 

It can be uncomfortable for teachers who feel like they don’t have the expertise needed to teach a concept. However, teachers can find ways to incorporate data literacy into their lessons, many of which will not require a lot of time or have a big learning curve to get started. Educators can also build their data literacy skills by taking individual courses, trying interactive games, and, more importantly, learning with and from the students. 

Fortunately, some organizations provide individual lessons or a full K-12 curriculum. Here are five options to explore for learning more about data science and data literacy skills:

  1. ASU Crash Course Data Literacy has created a lot of content to help educators get started. Educators and students can explore their 15 video series to learn about data literacy. The video series not only helps students to build data literacy skills gradually, but it will also promote more independence in learning as they control the pace and path of their learning.
  2. Algo-Rhythm is a fun way for younger students in grades four through six to learn about the basics of data science. Using music as the theme with different characters, students learn about data science in an engaging way. It is available for use at home or in school, and there are multiple levels to work through. Students have to analyze the music types and base decisions on the requirements of the characters, for example.
  3. Data Science 4 Everyone (DS4E) is a coalition geared towards K-12. DS4E has a robust site with a variety of lessons. Even for teachers who are just building data literacy skills, the resources available help them start immediately in the classroom. The resources can be filtered based on grade level. 
  4. Khan Academy has offered a variety of resources on different topics for free for many years. Searching their library of online course, you can find practice activities and videos for use with younger students through high school and college. To learn about data science, you simply look for a specific topic area such as the interpretation of data, to find activities to get started with.
  5. Tableau is a site that will help any teacher get started with a variety of activities for building data literacy skills. It includes free resources such as curricula, different learning materials, and software.

Beyond these five options, there are other methods and tools to use. For example, ask students to research a topic and sort the information they find based on the site, the date, the relevancy, for example. Let them investigate the source and analyze it for accuracy and legitimacy. Have students compare the data they receive with a classmate and then engage in a discussion. 


Read more: The 9 elements of Digital Citizenship your students need to know [INFOGRAPHIC]


Teaching data literacy skills made easier

Finding one or two resources to start can also make a difference and lessen any concerns about not having enough experience or there being a big learning curve. With DS4E for example, teachers can start with their ready-to-run presentations to show the importance of data science and why it is needed as part of the curriculum in all grades in our schools. 

In today’s world, having data literacy skills is essential regardless of the line of work. As educators, we are in the best position to prepare our students and to keep ourselves current with changing practices regarding technology and understanding data in our work. 

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