TinkerPlots Turns Students Into Data Analysts


How do we approach the teaching and learning of data management in North American elementary schools?

Tom got the following marks out of 10 on a series of quizzes: 6, 7, 9, 8, 5, 8, 8, 7, 7, 8. What is the mean, median and mode for Tom’s quiz marks?

This type of uninspired data management problem typifies what students, teachers and parents would encounter in most grade 3-8 textbooks and classrooms. The ensuing mathematical activity is void of conversation, and involves more computation with numbers than reasoning about data.

In a more innovative textbook or classroom, students might be using spreadsheets to represent data graphically and compute the various measures of central tendency for a set of data. But for whom are spreadsheets really designed? They assume an expert adult user with very sophisticated algebraic reasoning skills. Is this our typical grade 4-8 student?

Enter TinkerPlots. Developed with a grant from the National Science Foundation at the University of Massachusetts, in collaboration with four NSF-funded middle school math projects, TinkerPlots is an inquiry-based software construction set of graph pieces. Students can order, stack and separate icons to eventually build their own plots for analyzing data.

Mathematics teachers who are striving to teach students data analysis in line with recommendations of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ Curriculum Standards find TinkerPlots to be especially helpful.

In the last two years, several grade 4-8 teachers from Ottawa have been using the beta version of TinkerPlots with their students. The teachers quickly became comfortable with the fundamentals of TinkerPlots, and there now exists a series of five narrated online video clips showing the program’s basics and capturing many of the teachers’ introductory experiences. These video clips can be viewed online at www.umass.edu/srri/serg/projects/tp/tpmovie.html.

What teachers quickly realized was that with TinkerPlots they were naturally rethinking what data management learning might look like in their classrooms. The ready-made data sets included with TinkerPlots were powerful starting points for both the teachers and their students.

We began with the “Backpack” and the “Cats” data sets (see the related images below). By simply selecting an attribute from the data card, then clicking and dragging data points (or cats in the case of the “Cats” data set), students and teachers were quickly constructing data displays to explore their own questions.

Don Burke, a sixth-grade teacher from St. Luke Catholic School in Nepean, Ontario, has screen captures of several of his students’ work posted online at www.occdsb.on.ca/~luk/gr6db/tinkerplots.htm.

With TinkerPlots, our students and teachers were able to use rich data sets, pose their own problems, construct their own data displays, and tell their own data stories. The mathematical activity possible with TinkerPlots in the background is rich in dialogue and focuses on reasoning with and about data. This is a huge step in the right direction to making data management exciting and meaningful for our students and teachers.

TinkerPlots is a must for all grade 4-8 teachers who want to turn their students on to the power and beauty of data.

TinkerPlots is now commercially available in the U.S. through Key Curriculum Press. For more information, visit

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.