International Literacy Day: ‘Teaching data literacy is essential for growing digital natives’

The world is becoming increasingly data-led, and we must equip young people with the skills to understand the world around them, says Joe DosSantos, chief data officer at Qlik

Ever since the term ‘digital native’ cropped up in the early 2000s, it has become a blanket title we’ve used to describe anyone who doesn’t know a world without the internet. But while young people might have the digital know-how to pick up a smartphone and become a TikTok master in just a few hours, the majority still don’t have the skills and knowledge to understand a major facet of the digital world – data.

On International Literacy Day, now is the ideal time to consider why we still aren’t placing the same value on data literacy as we are in other areas of education such as reading, writing and basic numeracy, especially since the ability to understand and analyse data has never been more relevant. The global pandemic has meant we have all been bombarded with more data and statistical language than ever before. News reports feature graphs front and centre, and data is informing how we live our lives – determining whether we can leave our homes to see friends and family and visit restaurants, or whether we all need to stay home and move back into a lockdown. It’s clear that the world is becoming increasingly data-led, and we must equip young people with the skills to understand the world around them – and that means fostering a data literate generation.

Teaching skills that matter

Over the past decade, we’ve seen the world of work rapidly adapt to prioritise data in decision-making. While the practical understanding of data has become a key skill for the modern workforce, it’s still not reflected in school curriculums. In fact, currently, just 21% of 16-24 year-olds consider themselves data literate.

We need to be smarter about not only what we teach, but how we teach it. The fact is, computers and digital tools that exist in the ‘real world’ mean students will likely never have a practical use for some things we currently teach. We instead need to inspire young people to think about how data can be used to solve problems and utilise the existing tools that help them formulate a solution.

Creating a generation of problem solvers

Data literacy is also about having an inquisitive mindset, otherwise known as the ability to look at something in front of you and question it, analyse it, and make meaning from it.

It’s a skill that can be put to use every day – especially in a world full of fakes. With fake information and data spreading faster than we can implement technology that detects it, we need to rely on the skills of individuals to fact check, assess and question data, as well as to ensure the information is reliable. We have seen how harmful the impact of fake information is. Creating a generation of data literate individuals who know when and how to interrogate data is the right step to take in creating a shared reality moving forward.

Empowering critical thought

Schools should present every young person with the options to see where they excel, what they’re passionate about, and what they want to pursue. The best way to do that is to ensure we’re teaching everyone (regardless of age) all of the skills they’ll need to thrive in the ‘real world’. And with data becoming an increasingly valuable resource in both the public and private sector, data literacy is a skill that cannot keep going unacknowledged in our curriculums – it must sit shoulder to shoulder with reading, writing and arithmetic. If we want young people to feel empowered and to think crucially to solve the big problems, we need to ensure they can harness the insights that inform the solution. Only then will we be able to call them true ‘digital natives’.

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