Do women live longer than men? Using computers to investigate graveyard data
James R.M. Paul
Published in Learning
and Leading with Technology (The ISTE Journal of Educational Technology
Practice and Policy) May 1996
Using computers for interrogating data can play a major part in facilitating the kinds of educational change that constructivists are calling for, empowering teachers and pupils by providing them with the information handling skills required by the Information Age. The Schools Graveyard Research Project, run by the Education Department at Rhodes University, South Africa, provides teachers and senior primary pupils at schools in Grahamstown with the opportunity to use computers as research tools. The groups involved visit regional graveyards, where they capture headstone data. This data is entered into an electronic database provided by the university and investigated using the various query tools that databases provide. This is followed up by work with an electronic spreadsheet, which provides children with the opportunity to tabulate and graph their results to develop new insights from original historical data. The exercise has three main objectives:
While the project has involved a wide cross section of learners, this paper will concentrate on the findings of the research as it has related to the 66 standard five (12 year old) pupils from Victoria Primary who researched three local graveyards. The Albany area was settled by several thousand British immigrants in an immigration scheme funded by the British government in 1820. Local inhabitants are proud of their settler roots, and many are able to trace their lineage back to these early times. This made the exercise particularly relevant to the girls involved.
The children worked in pairs and were allocated to specific rows of graves so that the data could be collected systematically. A data collection sheet was used (see appendix 1) and data collected in the categories indicated. This part of the exercise was relatively straight forward but did require the pupils to use their mathematical skills to check ages at death or to work them out for graves where this information was lacking.
Once the data had been collected the children were divided into three groups, each of which spent three two hour sessions using the computers at the university's Education Department. The first session involved entering the data into the database. The database had already been set up and mirrored the data sheet, so the activity involved a simple transfer of the data into the relevant data fields. The children had recently started computer literacy lessons at school and had a fair knowledge of the key board. Even though this exercise did not require high order thinking it was valuable as it consolidated these basic computer skills. Children who had more regular access to computers at home were able to complete this task with very little difficulty. For those who had not had exposure the exercise provided opportunities for hands on keyboard experience and sufficient repetition to build up their confidence.
A facilitatory approach was taken
throughout this process, putting the responsibility for learning where
it belongs - with the pupil. The pupils were asked to consider the data
that they had captured, and to suggest what kinds of useful information
they thought the data might provide. The basic key strokes for ordering
and selecting data were demonstrated, and the pupils were encouraged to
scroll through the data so as to get an overall 'feel' for it. The data
was looked at as a whole to begin with, and sorted alphabetically by surname
to get an idea of the families represented. Attempts were made to draw
up family trees from the data, but it was found that the information required
to do this was too scanty. The children were then asked to suggest other
ways of looking at the data, and encouraged to form hypothesis and then
test them. Common hypotheses were that women live longer than men, that
people live longer in the 20th century than the 19th century and that
most people today die in their 70's. The data was then sorted by date
of death and by age at death. This allowed the children to make a physical
count of occurrences within specific age or year categories, and to draw
up tables and graphs representing their findings. The select feature was
then used to look at the data in more detail. 19th century data was selected
and analyzed and then compared to similar 20th century data. The same
was done with the data as it referred to men and women, and to those records
with an age of death less than 10. The information was entered into tables
(see appendices 2, 3 and
4) for analysis and then graphed (see accompanying
graphs). This was done manually to begin with, with the girls working
in pairs or small groups to generate their own pie, bar or line graphs.
Being able to categorise and graph the data made the information much
easier to understand. Victoria Primary uses an integrated curriculum approach
and the exercise reinforced the connectedness of school subjects, particularly
the way in which history and mathematics is linked.
Once the pupils had drawn their graphs,
they compared and discussed their findings in a larger group. The variety
of graphs drawn was an indication that the data was a valuable information
source which could be examined, compared and interpreted in a great variety
of ways. It also became clear that some of the data was difficult to compare.
The reason for this was that the sample sizes were very different, and
this led to discussion about ways to compare information fairly, and the
need to convert raw data to percentages. It is particularly interesting
to look at the difference between the number of deaths of children under
the age of 10 in this light. While there were 22 deaths in this category
during the 19th century and 35 during the 20th century, the corresponding
percentages are 25.6 percent and 2.8 percent. Graphing raw data in this
instance did little to bring out the ream meaning of the data. Understanding
this resulted in the data being re-examined and new questions being formulated.
The child death question resulted in one child suggesting that the high 19th century mortality rates were the direct result of poor medical knowledge during the 19th century. This provided an ideal chance for a discussion that brought other factors into the question - particularly those relating to modes of transport, road conditions and communications in general. The most valuable lesson here were that while the data could be used to support or refute the hypotheses that the children had made, it had to examined in the light of other factors (which may or may not be obvious), worked with carefully and examined critically.
The value of the task.
Current literature on educational change emphasises the need for teachers to provide learning experiences which are "student centred" and which place "increased responsibility for learning on the learner" (Thomas and Knezek, 1991. 49). David (1991, 40) has noted the need for educational systems which enable students "... to apply skills, to understand concepts and solve problems... to work collaboratively... to take responsibility for learning." We are moving, suggests Spender (1995:1) "from a system based on answers to one where questions are the norm; from being able to recall to being able to retrieve... from knowing to doing." The graveyard research project is structured to meet these criteria and goes some of the way towards empowering children to use computers in a powerful, relevant and research oriented way.
David, J.L. (1991). Restructuring and technology: Partners in change. Phi Delta Kappan, 73(1).
Spender, D. (1995).
From knowing to doing: An educational policy for the computer age.
International confederation of Principals, second world convention, Darling
Data is collected and entered on prepared templates
The data is copied into the database, and then qwueried using the different sort and selection tools. The findings are graphed.
Graveyard data is under threat due to natural wear and tear and vandals
These ornate stones go back to the 19th Century. The data on the lower one is badly weathered and essentially illegible
Graveyard Data Capture Sheet
Graveyard Research Project - Monty Paul
Education Department, Rhodes University, 1995
Analysis of Age at Death
Analysis of Age at Death
Graveyard Research Project
Monty Paul, Education Dept, Rhodes University, 1995.
Analysis of Deaths per Decade
Graveyard Research Project,
Monty Paul, Education Dept, Rhodes University, 1995.
Family tree from Cuylerville Graveyard, Eastern Cape, South Africa