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Diving Into Data: Why Data Literacy is Critical for Our Education

Data literacy should become an essential part of children's education and where we need to be careful will be discussed in the following article.

By Joana Visel & Hinnerk Frech

Introduction – Our living reality

Our school system is outdated! Often, we get the feeling that the curriculums haven’t changed much  since the school system was formed. For some time now, experts agree that the curriculums should be developed further. Curriculums should be adapted to our living reality, because our children are living through the formative years today and will contribute in shaping the future. Thus, they need to learn competences which are relevant and be prepared for their future – not the past. 

A crucial element of our living reality and our children’s future is digitization. With digitization comes data. Creative thinking and emotional intelligence go hand in hand with other skills which are needed for digitization, like programming, which an increasing number of students find on their timetables. These are some of the skills that should now play an increased role in the classroom! And there are many more relevant skills that our children have to learn for their digitized future.

Data literacy is one of them. Why data literacy should become an essential part of the education of our children and where we need to be careful will be discussed in the following.

Data Literacy – A definition

In this article, we follow the definition brought forward by Mandinach & Gummer1 who define data literacy as:

“the ability to understand and use data effectively to inform decisions […] composed of a specific skill set and knowledge base that enables educators to transform data into information and ultimately into actionable knowledge”. 

When we talk about data literacy in education, we therefore talk about the specific skills and knowledge linked to data literacy such as the analysis, interpretation, collection, problematization and critical scrutiny of especially digital data.2

Some of these skills are not necessarily new. However, as we will argue below, it is more necessary than ever to acquire these because of digitization. 

Methods for data analysis have been around for a long time and statistical methods are well researched. They are frequently used by different science disciplines and in the corporate world on a day to day basis. So, let us take a step back. What is new? For the field of political communication, Aagard & Bach-Ørsten argue that it is the sheer amount of data, the pace of data collection and analysis, as well as the accurate personalization of information based on data, that is new.3 But their argument can be extended to other fields as well. 

While the needed skills are not new, they are increasingly relevant because data, as we have established above, is important for more and more people’s everyday life for different reasons. Therefore, these data literacy skills should not be seen as important for scientists or higher-educated individuals only, as it might be the case now. But instead, it’s exactly due to its broad relevance for everyone that data literacy has to be part of everyone’s education. 

Why to be data literate?

When answering the question “Why data literacy is an essential skill for our children in the future”, we find ourselves on the search for traces of data in our society. Soon, we find ourselves asking: What role does data play in our lives? 

Data is a persistent part of our lives, no matter whether we fill in a form with our personal details to take part in a raffle, or whether we control the lights and the heating in our apartment with an app. 

This proves vividly that almost every step we take in a digitalized life is followed by companies. Big companies are tracking each and every one of us, collecting data, analysing it, and using it. And not only  big companies have valuable insights on our lives, but also democratic states – or less democratic states –  have the ability to track our behaviour, for example by CCTV and smart city sensors. Data is information and with information comes power.

This is our living reality! This is the status quo. We know that data is collected, analysed and used. But from whom, which of our data is analysed for what goal and with which consequences? Questions like these are mostly left in the dark. Do we know who is having the power?

Isn’t this reason enough to inform ourselves, to stand up, to track who tracks us, to analyse who analyses us? Don’t we all have the need to take informed decisions – decisions we know the consequences of? Don’t we, as consumers and citizens, have the right to decide actively and consciously? Of course, we have the right! But we miss the knowledge. We miss the basic skill set of data literacy.

Let’s conclude: Firstly, we need to be data literate to be a responsible consumer and a citizen of mature (political) judgments in order to make informed decisions regarding the use of our own personal data.4 

Secondly, We need to be data literate, because we already take data-based and data-driven decisions. So let’s take them with discernment. 

Here is a little self-test to prove this statement right: 

Do you believe in climate change? Some might answer that this is a scientific question and not a question of belief. And why is that? We experience both sides; there are scientists on both sides, and we hear politicians and media advocates taking part for both sides. So why are so many people convinced that climate change is real? One of the answers will definitely be: “Well, 97% of climatologists who actively publish research on climate change agree that it is real”.5 Indeed, it is the majority of experts who extracted from their data that there are abnormal shifts in climate. And here we go again: It is data. It is data that we rely on, when making up our minds on something. It is data that we act on.

And it is not only in the big decisions, like whether we agree with the majority of climatologists or not, that we trust data. We also trust data in our small, daily decisions. And what we consume shapes our belief-system and our personality: what we believe builds our character. Why we consume, what we consume, why we believe, what we believe – the decisions we take define us. These decisions are already data-based. 

So, let’s take the second reason as a fact and continue with the third. We need to be data literate, because our future jobs and our competitive advantage depends on data literacy.

In the business context, we see the increasing trust in data, which might – in some extreme cases – even lead to blindness with regards to concerns raised by real human-beings standing right in front of investors. Human beings have the ability to listen, see and experience with their senses; they have intuition. All these abilities of human beings can be measured but will never be pictured fully by pure quantitative data. Human beings and data combined are also no guarantor for success: The best data is worth nothing, if not handled by thoughtful data literates.

All in all, data is collected with wide interests and it is becoming increasingly accessible. Data is ever changing and fast paced. This is just to name a few characteristics of data, which have an immense impact on our lives. Data is pervasive and it is becoming increasingly important to us. Thereby, data literacy becomes increasingly important for us too.

If we do not teach everyone basic skills in data literacy, too many people will remain data analphabets. If data literacy becomes the domain of a relatively small group, one can suspect the status quo to be: a data elite. The majority of people will not be able to question data or critically reflect on questions related to validity and reliability of data. In the absence of critical thinking, the data may be taken as face value while shaping the public and private matters of life. We may end up needing to believe what others tell us. In times where we automate our homes, let health trackers and other app guides make decisions about our lives based on data, we are in danger of losing control over our own lives. In times where election campaigns use massive amounts of data to profile and target voters6, basic skills in data literacy are a key for our own abilities to be a democratic citizen. In times where preventive policing is discussed and tested, our own freedom may depend on our ability to question decisions based on data. 

It is time to start to fight data-analphabetism!

Educate readers! 

Now, after we have established the importance of data literacy, let us scrutinize the idea of teaching data literacy in schools a little more in detail. Because it sounds great, doesn’t it? We can introduce the teaching of data literacy in schools and our children will be equipped with one of the important skill sets of the 21st century. But is it really that easy? Of course, it is not. 

First, there are several ways of teaching data literacy. So we need common ground on the questions “What is data literacy?” and “To what extent do we want to teach it?”. And please, let’s make no mistake: Data literacy cannot be achieved overnight. 

Let us look at the model of data literate citizen by Wolff7, which argues that there are basically four levels of data literates:

Four levels of data literates according to Wolff.

So, to what extent do we want to teach our children data literacy? Shall they be “Communicators”, or better “Scientists”? In the course of this article, we agree that it is necessary to educate readers. The ability to interpret data is basic and crucial as the examples given above illustrate. Maybe, for teens we can talk about educating communicators, and who knows, in high school we might even educate a few skilled makers. But to believe that the introduction of data literacy in school would solve the issue of missing data literacy per se is naïve. The goal of teaching data literacy is to lay the foundation for independent, critical handling of data.

And further, data literacy can lay the foundation for informed discussions and decisions in regards to other important issues of the digital world: privacy and security. Only when we understand how much and what data we are giving to service providers and institutions, we begin to understand the possible consequences of our actions and inactions in the way we want to be represented.

Only when we know how much value data has, we can realise the implications in regards to security. If we do not know how much our data is worth and what it can be used for, there is no need to care much about privacy and safety, because it’s just data, right? Taysir Mathlouthi has reminded us of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the online activities of especially the American intelligence agencies, painting a gloomy picture of the American media world and governments that violate privacy and safety of the citizens immensely. Much of this is intrinsically linked to data.  So in order to be able to discuss our fundamental rights in a digital age, we should seek – at least – a basic understanding of data and its power.

Where we need to be careful

Still, when we teach data literacy, we need to be aware of certain pitfalls. When it comes to digital media, the authors’ experiences tell us that school lessons often do not go beyond “Digital media is potentially dangerous. Be careful. Do not post and believe anything”. If we teach data literacy by telling the students only how dangerous data is, nothing will be gained. The teaching shall be balanced to include skills to critically scrutinize data, skills to assess when and how to use it in an advantageous, ethical and morally good way. We need to teach both sides of the story. We need to prepare students to make reasonable, well-grounded judgements about data. 

Moreover, we should not hype digital data all too much. When teaching data literacy, it is of extreme importance that we do not forget the context and the limits of quantitative data; that numbers alone often do not tell the full story. Especially in the analysis of data, instances are quantified and frequently subject to statistical analysis in search of correlation and causality. Therefore, data literacy has to balance out this search for connections and support an understanding for the necessity of qualitative information. As numbers are often not as objective as we might believe them to be, we as data literates shall be conscious of possible cognitive biases we might have and that might be codified in data. 

Given the decisions that are made based on data analysis, it is crucial to be aware of the fact that human beings are not all about numbers. Life is never totally quantifiable. It is never 1 or 0. Big data, Silicon Valley and the tech ecosystem may want us to believe the opposite because it is a massive business. Data literate citizens, however, will never lose the human being out of sight and believe in numbers only. 

Data literacy has to become a normal part of our education. No more, no less.


  1. Mandinach, E. B., Gummer E.S. (2013). A Systemic View of Implementing Data Literacy in Educator Preparation. Educational Researcher 42.1): 30–37. Web.
  2. Mandinach, E. B., Gummer E.S. (2013). A Systemic View of Implementing Data Literacy in Educator Preparation. Educational Researcher 42.1): 30–37. Web.
  3. Aagaard, P., & Blach-Ørsten, M. (2018). Politisk kommunikation :  nye tider og nye aktører. København: Hans Reitzel.
  4. Wolff, A., Gooch, D., Cavero Montaner, J.J, Rashid, U., Kortuem, G., (2016). Creating an understanding of data literacy for a data-driven society. The Journal of Community Informatics, 12(3), 9-26.
  5. Doran, P., Zimmerman, M., & Doran, P. (2009). Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change. EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, 90(3), 22–23.
  6. Aagaard, P., & Blach-Ørsten, M. (2018). Politisk kommunikation :  nye tider og nye aktører. København: Hans Reitzel
  7. Wolff, A., Gooch, D., Cavero Montaner, J.J, Rashid, U., Kortuem, G., (2016). Creating an understanding of data literacy for a data-driven society. The Journal of Community Informatics, 12(3), 9-26.

About the Author

Joana Isabel Visel, 20, is studying Online-Media-Management at the University of Media Stuttgart, Germany. She enjoys discussing and writing about the opportunities of a globalized and digitized world, always in search of suitable ways to tackle the challenges that come with it.

Hinnerk Frech, 22, is studying International Social Sciences at Roskilde Universitet, Denmark. He is interested in a variety of different issues from philosophical discussions in the social sciences to the influence of social networks or smart homes on society and enjoys writing about these issues and discussing them.

2 comments on “Diving Into Data: Why Data Literacy is Critical for Our Education

  1. I couldn’t agree more! Glad that statistics is a part of the curriculum throughout high school but a more in-depth look at the subject and its applications are definitely needed. Thanks for sharing! 🙂


  2. Pingback: COVID data is complex and changeable – expecting the public to heed it as restrictions ease is optimistic – Philippine Canadian Inquirer

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