How I use Our World in Data in my work as a high school teacher

At Our World in Data we get lots of useful feedback from users: suggestions for topics we should cover, questions, and often feedback from policymakers, journalists, researchers and teachers who use us in their work.

When we asked how teachers were using our work, we knew that many use our work in postgraduate university education, but we were surprised how many secondary and even primary school teachers use our work. One of the most inspiring and innovative teachers we heard from was Matthew Cone, a high-school teacher at Carrboro High School in North Carolina. We had the pleasure of meeting him and his students at the UN General Assembly last year. We were curious about how our work was used in his classes, and he very kindly agreed to share some insights with us and you on our blog. The text below was written by Matthew Cone; we hope you find it as interesting as we do.

Each year, I take the students in my Global Issues class to New York City for the opening week of the United Nations General Assembly. In New York, we meet with an incredible array of experts—feuding economists, the heads of global organizations, authors, UN workers, and activists. While holding these meetings is a thrill, making sure that the students feel prepared is daunting as our trip takes place within the first month of the school year. Fortunately for us, Our World in Data (OWID) is an extraordinarily engaging website that my students and I use at the beginning of the year to gain a nuanced understanding of a range of development topics.

Last year, I exposed my students to OWID on the second day of the school year. At the start of that class, I asked students to get in partnerships and told them that I would be posing a series of questions about global development. I let the students know that since they were unlikely to know the actual answers, I was as interested in their logic as their actual answers. With that in mind, I gave them two minutes to discuss how long it took the US and Iran to decrease the fertility rate from 6 children per woman to 3 children per woman. After hearing every group’s response and the thinking that went into their answers, I showed the class an OWID chart [shown here] which reveals that this process took eighty-two years in the US and ten years in Iran. Most students were surprised by how far off the mark their initial guesses had been. As a means of following up, I asked them two questions:

1. What is your sense of why this data is true?

2. What questions does this data raise for you?

As soon as these questions were out of my mouth, the students began posing their own questions: Did a major event trigger one or both of the declines? Did the declines happen simultaneously? Did cultural, religious or economic reasons best explain the decline? Had Iran ever been a communist country? How closely tied were these declines to access to birth control? Didn’t urbanization make people want smaller families?

Years it took fertility to fall from 6 to below 3

As a teacher, I was thrilled by the students’ curiosity as well as by their willingness to offer support and criticism for their peers’ ideas. Seeking to capitalize on their desire to think deeply about tough questions, I asked them to discuss two more questions with their partners:

1. Which two countries have the highest rates of female obesity in the world? (Answer: Saudi Arabia and Egypt.)

2. Which three countries – with a population of at least 5 million – have the highest GDP per capita? (Answer: United States, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.)

Once again, students struggled to come up with the right answers but they did an exemplary job of sorting through why they had been wrong. I told them that the habits of mind that they were displaying (asking questions, not settling for the first answer to come to mind, seeking data, etc.) would help them to have productive discussions in New York City when we met with experts.

On the third day of class, I put the students in new partnerships and asked them to explore the OWID website. Literally, my sole instructions to the class were, “I want you and your partner to look at the sixteen research topics on the Our World in Data website and to discuss the findings that most interest you.” Over the course of the next fifty minutes, some groups became so fascinated by a topic that they spent the entire period exploring it. Other groups hopscotched from one topic to the next in search of the most intriguing finding. Regardless of their approach, all groups held lively discussions.

On the fourth day of class, I gave the students the whole period to create a poster that addressed three topics:

1. What is a finding(s) on your topic that strikes you as being important?

2. What is your sense of why this finding is true?

3. What questions does this finding raise for you?

Given that the students chose topics that were legitimately of interest to them, they worked tirelessly. For example, when answering the second question, some students opened up a dozen tabs in a quest to find data to support their conclusions. Alternatively, other students spent half the class writing more questions and explaining how these questions stemmed from their understanding of this topic from previous classes.

On the fifth day of class, I asked each partnership to join with another partnership and take turns presenting their posters. The give-and-take that ensued was so intense and organic that a stranger to our class would have been forgiven for not knowing who was a “presenter” and who was an “audience member.” During these presentations, I heard students discuss why policies that led to gains in one country were not immediately copied by that country’s neighbor; whether developing countries should focus on increasing the number of students in school or improving the educational experiences of those already in school; whether global warming was likely to increase or decrease international cooperation; and whether making tax collection more routine and fair in developing countries could render foreign aid useless and other similarly engaging questions. What I found so edifying about these discussions was that students were more interested in bouncing ideas off of one another and grappling with complex global matters than in being right or scoring ideological points.

This is the beauty of what OWID does for students—in a short period of time, it allows them to see how much more interesting, surprising, scary and hopeful the world is than they had previously imagined. Whether your goal is to introduce your students to a topic, to prepare them to hold a compelling discussions with an expert or to take a long-term interest in global issues, I hope that you expose your students to OWID. Simply put, it is the most thorough, engaging and provocative resource that I have come across in my career and it deserves the widest audience imaginable.