One tactic for creating interesting lessons is to approach from the backdoor: what if we did the wrong thing. I’ve used this with ideas as diverse as:
- What if we didn’t have punctuation marks/capital letters/quotation marks?
- What if we wrote the longest possible sentences every time?
- What if we never wrote our work down in math?
But perhaps my favorite use of this is with graphing in math. What if we used worst-practices in graphing information? This website is packed with real-life examples of poorly-designed graphs and could serve as a great starting point for problematic graphs.
Six Specific Tactics
Then, I came up with six ways to make a bad graph, and challenged my students to try to use them:
- Use a bar graph instead of a line graph, showing just the current state rather than how it evolved over time. Showing US vs English population in 1800 as a bar graph tells a different story than if we use a line graph from 1750 to 2000.
- Use an awful scale with your bar graph. In a class with 16 boys and 15 girls, set that range from 14 to 16 and see how misleading it is.
- Leave out important information. I created a graph of “the world’s tallest animals” and left out giraffes and elephants, making humans seem like the tallest critter on earth.
- Ask the wrong group. If my pie chart shows that 85% of respondents believe that kids should go to bed earlier, but I don’t disclose that I asked 100 adults, then I’ve created a pretty misleading graph.
- Use a terrible scale with a line graph. It might look like my grades are really getting better, but if the scale only goes from 35% to 55%, then the truth is a bit different.
- Make a graph fancy. The fancier the graph, the harder to read. Software is especially horrible at this, allowing us to use 3D, shadows, texture, and gradients when the simplest option is often the clearest. I’m pretty proud of the awful graph below. Your kids will have a blast trying to create the least-legible graph using PowerPoint.
See how many of these techniques your students can use to tell an incomplete story. Bonus points if they use real data to try to sell a fake story.