Why data literacy needs to be included in the school curriculum

Data is driving everything.
Data literacy needs to be taught.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution roars onward, accelerated by COVID-19 with businesses across all industries adopting Internet of Things (IoT) technology and Big Data in a more sophisticated manner as we adapt to the next stage of our society’s development.

And at the centre of this entire revolution is data. With the emergence of AI, robotics and cloud technologies, the ability to interpret, understand, action, and argue with data is a required skillset in many professions across all industries. In short, if you want to be successful in business, you need to be data literate.

Data literacy has long been seen as a specialist skillset, reserved for data analysts and IT professionals, but in 2021, this is no longer the case. Today, whether you’re in finance, HR, working in a warehouse or on the retail floor, data-driven decision making is key to the success of businesses and individuals.

Businesses across the globe are frantically upskilling their current workforce to work effectively with data. Data literacy courses, programs and training schemes are growing in popularity as organisations trying to bridge the skills gap. Some companies, including Adobe and Bloomberg, have developed entire in-house digital academies to help their employees to become data literate. While Qlik has been a pioneer in the data literacy movement across the business world, creating the Data Literacy Project, a global community dedicated to creating a data-literate world.

However, while businesses work to retroactively develop data literacy in their current workforce, they view the next generation as digital natives, and expect them to enter the workforce with data literacy already in their arsenal. In the same way that an employer would expect a recruit to be able to navigate the web or organise an inbox, employers will expect the next generation to be able to manage and interpret data.

Unfortunately, this is where the current school curriculum falls short. A recent Harvard Business Review article highlighted that the current education system is ill-equipped to solve the data-literacy gap, with math curricula prioritising critical core concepts (calculus and algebra) above more applied subjects like statistics and probability, which teach abstract thinking, reasoning, and data storytelling. As a result, our next generation is entering a workforce reliant on data without the skills necessary to utilise it.

It’s also important to note that data literacy isn’t just a business skill, but a life skill. Consider financial literacy, purchasing power, and even managing misinformation in everyday life. Validating opinions with data is crucial to develop informed, rational perspectives in life. As humans, we know to question people when they say something we perceive to be misleading or incorrect. However, when we are presented with data, many of us don’t have the ability or desire to challenge it. We naively treat any data as truth, and as a result our implicit bias warps opinions and decisions, which spreads misinformation.

Education plays a key role here. We need to learn to not just look for data and information, but to garner insights and knowledge. This requires the ability to use the right tools and technologies, and soft skills like challenging assumptions, critical thinking, and the ability to mitigate implicit bias.

Interestingly, COVID-19 has also provided unintended data literacy benefits to our society. Consider our leaders’ daily press conferences which focus primarily on data regarding infection rates, vaccine rollouts and restrictions. Australians are consuming more charts, graphs and statistics in their everyday life than ever before, and the tools to consume and analyse data have never been more readily available or user friendly. This presents educators with opportunities to introduce real-world applications of data to the classroom, imbuing data storytelling and data literacy into future generations in relatable, engaging ways.

Whether analysing data in business or in life, data literacy has become a core skill for success. The degree to which data literacy is integrated into school curricula will heavily impact future generations across business and their personal lives. Equipping today’s students with the ability to read, interpret and use data might be the most important investment our generation makes in the future of our society.

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