Using Data in Context

By Lori Strauss, Head of School

Using data in context is a primary goal of evidence-based claims when we look to understand numbers as they relate to the human experience.

Over the last several weeks, I visited our 11th grade history classes. I was impressed by the intellectual engagement between peers, the culture of inquiry, and the diversity of thought flourishing here at Field. Here is a peek into the classroom.   

11th grade U.S. History teacher: “Observe the graph and develop one claim that can be supported by this graph along with one question that this graph raises for you.”

11th grade student: “There was demand for a greater number of workers during WWII. Does this mean that WWII was actually good for the economy?”  

11th grade U.S. History teacher: “What additional information do you need to make that determination?” 

11th grade student: “The graph doesn’t provide enough information to know that, and I remember reading about the impact of the number of women entering the workforce at this time.”  

Using data in context is a primary goal of evidence-based claims when we look to understand numbers as they relate to the human experience. Whether we are talking about COVID-19 hospitalizations relative to known infections and predicting future needs for inpatient care or rainfall analysis to inform predicted climate changes in the next decade, data is central to our ability to analyze problems. 

One component of Field’s 6-12 education is literacy. Literacy today means so much more than the “reading to learn” standard of the past. Literacy can be extended and should apply to information and data. Understanding is derived from evaluating sources, learning to interpret multiple and sometimes contradictory data sets, understanding how to set up the x and y-axis of a graph, discovering the difference between correlation and causation, forming opinions, writing policy, and organizing an argument. While data science informs our approach, historical thinking demands that we see that data in context.  

We explicitly teach lateral reading, which has our students answering the question, “who is behind the information?” In terms of digesting and assessing for reliability and validity, these skills are instrumental to research and argumentation. Students unpack and apply the best practices of fact-checkers, historians, and journalists to build their own research and writing skills and recognize evidence of these practices–or lack thereof–in the information they consume.

Our 11th grade U.S. History course begins with a deep dive into historiography. Historiography is the study of how history is written and examines the impact of a historian’s identity and experience on their work and the larger historical narrative understood by the nation.

For the culminating unit, students engage in writing an 8-10 page research paper that examines a historical question of the student’s choice. The educators, Elena Young, Bishop Walker, and Jaclyn Zarrella, have carefully scaffolded opportunities for students to learn how to form a research question, how to identify and gather diverse sources, how to take notes from primary sources, how to create arguments to support a thesis and how to write for understanding. And, of course, the drafting and editing process.  

Research is about questioning and having the skills to develop understanding of ourselves and others. We intentionally break down this process throughout the year in order for students to put it all together in this capstone experience. At year’s end, every 11th grade student will have a paper that they have labored over with great care. The skills developed in one context are transferable to their 12th grade courses, college studies, careers, and citizenship. 

The goal then is not a research paper for the sake of writing one. The goal is to engender a way of thinking and communicating that embraces the use of data to deepen our understanding of historical forces in present-day circumstances.