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Data Storytime: The Best Readers Prefer Fiction

Posted in Knerds on April 9, 2012 by

I work as a data storyteller at Knewton. This means I look at data coming from different origins with an inquisitive attitude and explore the narrative in it through statistical analysis. The goal is to find a story in the data that is informative and useful and that will help people make effective decisions.

For a data storyteller, any new source of data is a reason for excitement. If that source of data relates to a social field, even better. The universe of educational data that Knewton deals with certainly fits into that category.

The world of education is connected with pretty much every other aspect of our society. In order to fully understand education, we need to understand the influences that exist on and from society, as well the processes involved in learning at an individual level.

This will be the first in a series of posts contrasting different views of education and the evidence these interpretations are based on. The intention is to use to data to explore the stories inherent in education: stories about learning and development, about policy and society, about technology and anything other aspect of our world that can give us insight into what is also happening when people learn stuff.

What you read tells us about how you read

The PISA test has become the international reference for assessing educational outcomes across the world. Every three years since the year 2000, students from 66 countries have taken reading, math, and science tests.

In the last PISA reading literacy test, in 2009, U.S. 15-year-olds scored 500/700, ranking 17th and falling in the average range among the groups of participants. The countries with the top three scores on the test were South Korea, Finland, and Canada.

The test also digs into students’ interests and habits in order to help policy-makers improve as many aspects of the educational ecosystem as possible.

Not surprisingly, the results show that students who read for their own enjoyment tend to have stronger reading skills than those who do not read for pleasure. More specifically, those who read fiction for pleasure are very likely to be good readers. Reading non-fiction and comic books don’t seem to be that closely associated with skillful reading. Reading these for pleasure is associated with lower-than-average scores in the U.S. as well as most other countries — but it is still better than not reading at all.

This makes me wonder what we would find in a similar study involving internet use. While having access to technology is very likely to boost technological literacy, it is less clear how technology use interacts with learning in terms of reading or logical thinking skills. There are way too many uses of the internet (including a significant number of possibly counterproductive uses) to draw any conclusions on how it affects education in general.

Technology has the potential to transform education for the better in ways that we’re only now starting to imagine. But simple access to technologies does not guarantee a productive and creative use of them. As such, the technologically driven transformation of education needs to be a deeply thoughtful process.