Graphing: Hand vs. Digital

The other day I was telling someone about how I’m having my students create graphs for their math labs on their iPads this year.  They seemed a little put off. “But they won’t know how to make a graph by hand,” they said.  I thought about that for a minute and my response was, “why do they need to know how to make a graph by hand?”  When was the last time anyone over the age of 10 made a graph by hand?

When fifth grade students make graphs the main things I’m looking for are: Have they chosen the appropriate kind of graph, have they properly placed and labeled the X and Y axis, and is their data correct i.e. does it match what’s in their data table.  Usually most of my students understand these things with a little help on the first one.  What they lose points on is not adding a title, not spacing or numbering the graph properly, and….neatness.  After all, it’s pretty hard to analyze data with wavy bars or misplaced points.

When adults want something to look neat they use the computer.  Can you imagine a business person showing up to a meeting with a bunch of hand drawn graphs haphazardly glued to a poster board?  Children understand this very clearly.  In fact, I often get responses on my beginning of the year writing survey like “My best piece was <insert title of piece here> because I did it on the computer.”  Perhaps it wasn’t the child’s best piece of writing, but it was the piece they were the most proud of, because they made it look professional and adult.

I thought for a minute that this might be like the “handwriting issue.”  Except there is research that supports handwriting as valuable to brain function for younger students.  (I don’t really have a source for that, I saw it on the news…take it for what it’s worth.)  It’s easy for me to say that because I don’t have to teach it.  (Most experts agree fourth grade is pretty much it.) I see a use for it in my own classroom these days because it’s easier to write cursive on the iPad than it is to print.    Perhaps handwriting will make a comeback as touch technology grows?

But graphing by hand?  Is there any REAL reason that students need to practice this skill over and over again?  Other than it might show up on a standardized test…I just can’t think of one.  I can think of many reasons to do it with technology though, if you have the access.  Doesn’t it stand to reason that students will develop a better understanding of what type of graph to use in each situation because they will be able to experiment with different ways to display their data and analyze how those ways do or do not show the relationship between the manipulated and responding variable?  The whole point of graphing is to give us a visual for analyzing the data.  So if that visual is organized and easy to read won’t that help students analyze the data?  If they can adjust the graph to include more data, less data, taller bars, color coding, various layouts, and more won’t that help students to take their data analysis to the next level?  When students use technology they are able to have access to a variety of ways to concretely represent their work.  I believe this helps them to transfer their learning which, according to Grant Wiggins, is the whole purpose of learning anyway!

So I guess I’m wondering…is there any reason why students really have to graph data by hand?  If the technology is there, and it improves the outcome, why not use it?


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