Data visualisations – configuring teachers as data users

Helene Ratner and colleagues raise a number of interesting points regarding the prominence of data visualisations in education.

Of course, visualisations are “just a rather small component” (p.24) of digital data, but of immense importance when it comes to how education data is used by practitioners. In fact, for many teachers data visualisations are the primary way in which data is encountered and interpreted in school, with most not getting to engage first-hand in the processes of producing, analysing and sorting data.

This over-privileging of data visualisations is potential problem. Indeed, Ratner first reminds us of the fact that Data visualisations do not provide direct, neutral or objective insights into data. Instead, we need to understand “visualizations as situated, socio-material, and contingent achievements” (p.25).

In particular, their paper is interested in how the production of data visualisations involves the work of key groups of actors – what they call ‘Data Mediators’. For example, those who design dashboards and other interfaces, those who produce synopses of data for teachers to engage with. These actors – it is contended – play a key role in configuring teachers as data users.

In particular, the paper explores how these ‘data mediator’ groups work with shared assumptions about teachers as data users – for example, that teachers do not have much time to engage with data, are only interested in addressing specific needs (e.g. the imperative to ‘improve’ learning), might be confused by multiple presentation of the same data, are perhaps prone to misinterpreting anything too complex and numerical.

This certainly explains the fondness in Australian schools for traffic lights and the common ‘Excel’ vernacular of pie-charts, bar graphs and box-and-whisker plots. However, it is important to remember that while designers and other mediators may well shape how teachers can interpret data, they do not dictate how teachers use data. Instead, it is also important to consider how teachers might (re)appropriate visualisations in new, unexpected and surprising ways.

All told, the paper provides inspiration how we might set about exploring the nature of data visualisations in our schools. For example, how about posing the following questions to teachers in order to prompt reflection on something that they are otherwise likely to give little or no thought to …

  • What does this data visualisation tell you about your students, your school and yourself?
  • What does this data visualisation NOT tell you about your students, your school and yourself?
  • What does this data visualisation assume about you as a teacher?


[Helene Ratner, Bjarke Lindsø Andersen & Simon Ryberg Madsen (2019) Configuring the teacher as data user: public-private sector mediations of national test data, Learning, Media and Technology, 44(1):22-35]