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Problematizing a Graph or Image

"Problematizing" a Graph or Image


When students must construct the meaning in a graph or image for themselves, they get the experience of grappling with raw data and building an understanding of the relationships within that data.

The activity

The sources in our disciplines (books, journals, even class texts) consist mostly of our fellow scholars providing evidence in support of conclusions they have drawn. This exercise consists of providing your students with evidence alone, and asking them to draw their own conclusions from it. This can be an individual assignment or an in-class discussion activity, which case it would work well in the context of a Think-Pair-Share.

Example: De-labeling a graph

  1. Cover up the labels on a graph in a text-book and photocopy it.
  2. Then distribute the unlabeled graph to the students and tell them (for example) "this graph depicts the relationship of salinity, temperature and depth in an ocean. What do you think are the axes, and what are the lines? Why?"
  3. Give them a few minutes (but not too much time) to discuss it amongst themselves.
  4. Begin an all-class discussion.

(In this case, the blue line represents temperature, the red line represents salinity, and the black axis represents depth. This graph illustrates an oceanographic phenomenon called a thermocline.)

Relationship of Salinty, temperature, and depth in ocean graph

From: Williams, R. and Reimers, C. (2005, October). Data drives inquiry: Strategies for problematizing the materials of our disciplines. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Professional and Organizational Development Network, Milwaukee, WI.

Framing this activity for success

We all want students to carry our teachings into their lives. Often, however, we must make our intentions very plain for students to understand that an assignment will equip them with skills and empower them, and is not an arbitrary hoop through which they must jump.

For this reason, frame each activity using these four steps:

  1. Introduce the activity by making clear the specific critical thinking skill the assignment will give them practice using. They may not understand the precise definition of the term, so provide it in writing on the board or overhead. (As a reminder, definitions are here.)
  2. Share examples of how this skill can serve them in their daily lives (e.g., guiding them to buy better products, improving their performance in other classes, advancing their career, communicating better with people they care about, better understanding their own experiences, etc.).
  3. Conduct the activity as described above, making it as active and interactive as possible. When students can talk about their thinking, that thinking moves forward. Teaching for critical thinking is teaching for active learning.
  4. Conclude the activity by reflecting back to students examples that you saw of them using the critical thinking skill effectively, and reminding them to consider the relevance of that skill in other aspects of their. Repeating the examples given in Step 2 may be appropriate, as students will have a different understanding of the skill once they have experienced the assignment.

Important: Wait Five Seconds!

Among the most useful things we as teachers can do during class discussion is shut our mouths. In an oft-cited meta-analysis of wait-time research, Tobin (1987) described findings of greater engagement and achievement when teachers waited at least three to five seconds after asking a discussion question before speaking again. Above this threshold, higher level thinking was observed and student academic performance improved. However, teachers behaving "normally" only tend to wait about one second. Students need a few moments to digest what they have recently heard, formulate their responses, and work up the courage to speak. Slow down, and more of your students will keep up with you.

Reference: Tobin, K. (1987). The role of wait time in higher cognitive level learning. Review of Educational Research, 57, 1: 69-95.