The American Time Use Survey Is “Poetry, in Data.”

The American Time Use Survey is a fantastic data set. You can find out how many more hours per day women spend on household activities than men. You can identify the time of day that the majority of Americans wake up.

You can also determine the amount of time we spend with certain groups of people in our lives from childhood to late adulthood. For example, here are graphs of the amount of time we spend with friends and with co-workers.

graphs of time spent with friends and co-workers

Fantastic graphs, right? But will students think they’re fantastic? Will they learn from the graphs? How can you effectively introduce your students to the American Time Use Survey?

I use three strategies every time. You can read about them below and experience them in this new free activity from me and my colleagues at Desmos.

First, a meta-strategy:

I don’t allow myself to rest for a second in the false comfort that this is a “real world” context, and per se, interesting to students. Contexts are never “real” or “unreal.” They don’t exist in a vacuum. Contexts become real when teachers invite their students to interact with them in concrete and personal ways.

Here are three invitations I extend to students basically any time I’d like them to experience a graph as real.

1. I invite students to contribute their own data.

A table asking students to describe their OWN time usage.

The graph represents a group of people’s concrete and personal experiences: time spent with friends, co-workers, and partners. I ask students to contribute their own data so the quantities and relationships become more concrete for them as well.

2. I invite students to sketch their own graph before seeing the actual graph.

This invites students to share their own knowledge about the quantities and relationships. Students have ideas about how many hours people spend with friends throughout their lives. We should invite them to express those ideas with a graph.

The student's sketch and the actual answer.

I also place their own data from (1) on the graph. This extends an even more personal invitation to students and gives them an anchor for their graphing.

“That’s you on there, friend. Do you think American 15-year-olds spend more or less time with their friends than you? Okay, graph it!”

3. I invite students to reflect.

Jim Coudal called these graphs “Poetry, in data.” So I ask students to tell us which graph is most poetic and why. We’ve built up a lot of steam in the activity, and this question helps release it. It allows us to elicit from students the personal observations that haven’t yet found a home in our activity.

I posted this activity on Twitter and the majority of people said this was the most interesting graph to them.
Graph of time spent alone. It increases sharply towards the end of life.

People wrote:

It is sad to me that once we are old enough to have free time to spend with friends, we spend more time alone.

I wonder if the loneliness is by choice.

Alarming lack of social opportunities for seniors.

There is so much interesting research coming out about the impact of loneliness on people’s health.

How can we change this?

So consider the invitations you extend to students. In many curricula, those invitations are impersonal and abstract. “What is the value of the co-workers graph for a 75-year-old?” That’s a question that invites students to reflect on an adult’s knowledge of graphs and the context.

“What would your data look like? What do you think the graph looks like? Why?” These are questions that invite students to interact with the graph in personal ways, to inhabit the graph as if it were their own.

Featured Comment

Leigh Ann Mahaffie:

As I’m feeling mighty alone personally (even though there are folks in the house) and professionally (electronically just isn’t the same) during the current “Stay at Home” situation, this data definitely evokes some poetry for me.

About 
I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.

5 Comments

  1. Geetha Murthy

    May 5, 2020 - 4:56 am -
    Reply

    Dan- during this pandemic school closures, we need to motivate and engage students more than ever before and your lessons and activities are perfect for this.

  2. Leigh Ann Mahaffie

    May 5, 2020 - 11:49 am -
    Reply

    Featured Comment

    As I’m feeling mighty alone personally (even though there are folks in the house) and professionally (electronically just isn’t the same) during the current “Stay at Home” situation, this data definitely evokes some poetry for me.
  3. Vanessa Cruz

    June 24, 2020 - 9:08 am -
    Reply

    Thank you for these interesting graphs! They are great for facilitating authentic math talks and helping students and teachers alike to reflect on the value of time especially during these difficult times.

  4. Iftikhar Ahmad

    August 6, 2020 - 12:40 pm -
    Reply

    Incredible way to introduce graphs to students and to help them understand the realtionship between two quantities

Leave a Reply to Geetha Murthy

Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *