Teaching Mathematics Using Primary Sources: Data Mining, 1880s Style, Part 1

Asha Bajaj
4 min readNov 12, 2020

#LibraryOfCongress; #TeachingMathematics;

This post was written by Peter DeCraene, the 2020–21 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress. This is one of several posts about using mathematics to develop and analyze data representations found in primary sources.

Library of Congress. Image credit: Twitter handle

As the lone math teacher among humanities folks, I’ve been awash in the seemingly limitless sea of historical primary sources at the Library. The first islands of refuge I found were statistical atlases. I was amazed and delighted at the variety and beauty of how these atlases displayed the vast amounts of available data and the possibilities for connecting math topics to American history. When I started to explore, the graphs on this page caught my eye. While I wasn’t overly excited about the topic of “Live Stock and Products,” the graphs offer a good place to begin a mathematical journey using primary sources.

First, ask students to look at the top half of the page and examine the bar charts and map and how they’re presented. After a minute or two of observing, direct students to gather in small groups to share with each other and reflect on what they’ve observed, then generate questions about the graphs.

When I use this strategy, I record student questions where everyone can see them while groups report, without offering any feedback other than “Thank you.” (Too often, we math teachers and students like to jump right to the solving part, instead of taking some time to appreciate the richness of information.)

Next, discuss which questions require additional information and which can be answered using a math strategy. For online instruction, use breakout rooms or a chat tool. The Observe-Reflect-Question strategy allows all students to participate, no matter their computational strength. Everyone can observe something and ask a question.

Here are possible questions about the data:

  • “Which of the bar charts does the map illustrate? How might you create a map for the other bar chart? When I first saw the map on this page, I was surprised that states like Illinois and New York were so much darker than Texas; I thought Texas would be the “biggest cattle state.”…
Asha Bajaj

I write on national and international Health, Politics, Business, Education, Environment, Biodiversity, Science, First Nations, Humanitarian, gender, women