Seeing how information can actually inform at the Maths Gallery
Maths Gallery at Science Museum

First of all, the person who was the surprising source, then how they helped me to get information to actually inform.

It was one person I didn’t expect to encounter at the new Maths Gallery in the Science Museum in London.

I had expected the architects, engineers, astronomers, computer scientists and military people and I enjoyed engaging with their stories and seeing the associated artefacts. I even half expected the crowds of school children, not actually in the exhibition but visitors like myself, with teachers hovering and hoping it would inspire them to see the relevance of maths more in everyday life. Which it did for me.

Florence Nightingale showed how to inform with the information she had
Florence Nightingale

The one I didn’t expect was Florence Nightingale.

Like most people, I associate her with nursing and how she organised treatment for wounded soldiers in the Crimea in the 19th century. But apparently she was also quite a mathematician, taught by her father. She realised the significance of statistics in making the case for her approach and so she gathered them to show the significance in the fall in number of casualties due to her nursing.

But it was what she did with the statistics that surprised me and I imagine what made her an item in the exhibition. She didn’t just say to some government ministry somewhere “Here are the facts … what will you do about them?”. She knew that more was needed beyond the numbers and so she worked at finding how to present the numbers in a form to visually enforce her argument. She tried pie charts, a new form of presenting data then. Finally she arrived at polar charts, a sort of histogram in a circle (as shown). This achieved the effect she wanted in order to show the difference made by nursing. We have all benefited subsequently.

Information in polar charts used to inform
Number of casualties BEFORE and AFTER nursing began

It emphasises to me the importance of not just having evidence for my case but also of taking time to find an effective visual means to communicate it. One way that has worked for me is seeing world data portrayed in terms of a global village of 100 residents rather than as statistics citing so many millions of people worldwide who do whatever.

In my own situation as a trainer, I have seen the effect of using lines on the floor to illustrate how many characters are possible in a Unicode font compared to a legacy font. A technical issue but one brought to life by presenting the data in this way. In designing financial management training for a water charity, I used a river picture to show past financial results rather than spreadsheets, with the former much better received. In digital training several websites help create infographics, some of which are free.

Florence Nightingale is rightly recognised both for her nursing and statistical prowess. A lesser known prowess is how she got information to actually inform.

One I am now more conscious of in my work, thanks to her.

In what ways have you presented data that has enhanced the impact on your learners?

2 thoughts on “Getting information to actually inform … with help from a surprising source”

  1. I just got a great example from a colleague. In order to show the importance of thinking explicitly about desired transformation, she used the example of a stagnant pool and the change undergone to make it a thriving vegetable garden. Since her class had all been present as this transformation happened, referring later to the “black pool” immediately summoned up their memories of this needy situation and the vision and work required to make it the healthy place it now is. She even brought a poster of the “before” and “after” photos to display. Vibrant, relevant examples can turn an abstract principle or process into memorable learning experience.

    1. Very visual example Jenny! I’m guessing that the transformation it was applied to was a more abstract one, such as a change of character or habit. I find too that having such vibrant examples helps in discussing the abstract situation.

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