Thankful for an Opportunity to Learn

I first saw the Facebook Data Science What are we most thankful for? chart on the Mental Floss Facebook feed. I was fascinated by the topic, the data, and, as always, the comments following the “share.”

I like seeing this sort of data science at work. I found Facebook’s “thankful data” fun because it offers a snapshot of something quirky, and positive, about how some Americans think. I am not kidding when I say that it warms my heart to see what people using Facebook proclaimed they were thankful for during the periods the study covered. Although Netflix didn’t make my personal thankful list this November, I am glad it is around–and, I’m all for sunsets, freedom of speech, and the ability to laugh.

I am also not kidding when I say that it horrifies me to read the comments on the Mental Floss, NPR, and Facebook Data Science posts of this article that reveal that many people commenting appear to have had no interest in actually looking at the relatively short, and clearly written and illustrated, science behind the data. Even allowing for Thanksgiving Trolls, the comments that I saw overwhelmingly suggest that people simply are not interested in understanding how a study works, much less the variety of ways data can be used and organized. Many commenters are adamant that their state was misrepresented because they would not personally *ever* be thankful for [whatever it is the text-clustering algorithm identified for their state].

Facebook Data Science: What Are We Most Thankful For?

Map of United States with Words Representing Things Residents are Thankful for.

From Facebook’s Data Science Team: What are we most thankful for? by Winter Mason, Funda Kivran-Swaine, Moira Burke, and Lada Adamic

As a librarian and an educator that lack of understanding is a big deal to me. If I were to view those comments in the context of iterative assessment while working with a class who was responding to the results of this survey, I would determine that we had missed the mark in gaining meaningful understanding that would lead to producing our own sound conclusions. As thinking members of a society, this should be a big deal to all of us. No, not the realization that English-speaking, California Facebook users whose data made it into this study were thankful for YouTube. What should be a big deal is what the anecdotal evidence we see in the comments reveals about what we should focus on in education to prepare today’s students become productive members of a globally connected society. Being able to read, understand, and interpret information is a basic literacy skill. I hope that we can help our students develop this basic skill. I hope we can also engender in our students the motivation to investigate and question the data that drives the creation of these charts, then to review that information and apply the details to enhance their understanding of how data is collected and what it can be used for. Or even better–to analyze the way data is collected and used to create new understanding and to apply that knowledge to investigate something they are passionate about.

All that from a silly little “share” about what people are thankful for on Facebook? Yup.

I know this isn’t a new issue, and I know it isn’t going away soon. I know some of you got to that second paragraph and thought, “in other news, water is still wet.” That doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference, though. I’m thankful for articles, data, and comments that make me think. I’m thankful for my family, friends, education, passion, freedom of speech–and for math and science teachers who might like to collaborate with a certain Teacher Librarian on a few data science lessons.