Measuring Human Rights: High School Mathematics Unit

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • Understand the meaning of concepts such as “indicator,” “quantitative,” and “qualitative,” and use that understanding in beginning to frame a response to the unit’s essential question: How do we measure the attainment of human rights?
  • Connect ideas found in short sections of complex text and relate them to the unit’s essential question.
  • Identify key words and ideas about indicators of human rights in text taken from the UN’s Human Rights Indicators Guide.
  • Interpret the Table of Contents, an example Flow Chart, and an example Matrix Chart taken from the UN’s Human Rights Indicators Guide.
  • Connect and relate information found in various forms of “text” – quotations, explanatory paragraphs, and organizational charts.

Standards Addressed

ELA/Literacy RI.1.11-12: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

ELA/Literacy RI.7.11-12: Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Instructional Notes for Learning Activities

Pre-assessment for the Lesson

Begin class by projecting or distributing the following quotation from Mary Robinson, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights in her 2000 address “Statistics, Development and Human Rights” [found on p. 1 of Human Rights Indicators guide]:

“The subject of your work here, “Statistics, Development and Human Rights”, is nothing less than a quest for a science of human dignity. This is a vital endeavour. When the target is human suffering, and the cause human rights, mere rhetoric is not adequate to the task at hand. What are needed are solid methodologies, careful techniques, and effective mechanisms to get the job done." - Mary Robinson

Ask students to write an informal paragraph in which they make a connection(s) between the Galbraith quote from the Introduction to the UN’s Human Rights Indicators (“If it is not counted, it tends not to be noticed”) and Robinson’s words, particularly the last sentence.

When students have finished writing, ask them to discuss (in pairs or small groups) what they have discovered in the homework reading, the Robinson quote, and the connections they have made between them. Then have pairs/teams share their observations with the class. Broaden the discussion out by asking students, What does this have to do with math? What does it tell us about the value of using math in the real world?

Close Reading Exercise - Text

Why Indicators for Human Rights: Distribute the following handout, which contains several short (but important) sections of text extracted from Human Rights Indicators. Ask students to do a close reading, highlighting (or annotating) key words and phrases that relate to the application of math to the measuring of human rights. For each paragraph, discuss what students have found, and what connections they have made between these words/ideas from the Guide and the unit’s essential question: How do we measure the attainment of human rights?



The demand for and the use of indicators in human rights are part of a broader process of systematic work to implement, monitor and realize rights… Indicators provide concrete, practical tools for enforcing human rights and measuring their implementation… Moreover, the exercise of identifying and using suitable indicators—quantitative as well as qualitative—also helps in clarifying the content of human rights standards and norms. [p. 2]

In the context of this work, a human rights indicator is specific information on the state or condition of an object, event, activity or outcome that can be related to human rights norms and standards; that addresses and reflects human rights principles and concerns; and that can be used to assess and monitor the promotion and implementation of human rights… Indicators can be quantitative or qualitative. The former are narrowly viewed as equivalent to “statistics”, while the latter cover any information articulated as a narrative or in a “categorical” form. [p.16]

"Human rights can never be fully measured in statistics; the qualitative aspects are too essential. The conclusion, however, is not that the human rights community should avoid using quantitative facts, but rather learn how to use them. The challenge is to develop a know-how on how to plan such fact-finding, to assemble the data, to organize them meaningfully and to present and disseminate them properly—in order that high standards of relevance and reliability be met." - Thomas Hamerberg [p.27]

Close Reading Exercise - Contents

Project for (or distribute to) students the Table of Contents from the source, Human Rights Indicators. Have them scan the organization of the Contents and make a list of what they might find within the Guide to Measuring Human Rights. Show them the pages for List of Boxes, List of Figures, and List of Tables to illustrate that the Guide contains information and displays as well as text.

Close Reading Exercise – Flow Chart

Project (or distribute) Figure IX (p. 77) and explain its organization as a flow chart [also explain the concept of a flow chart if students are unfamiliar with it]. Ask students to follow the arrows to discuss the relationships among what are labeled “Structural Indicators,” “Process Indicators,” and “Outcome Indicators.”

Close Reading Exercise – Matrix Chart

Distribute to students Table 2: Illustrative indicators on the right to adequate food (UDHR Article 25). [p.89]

Explain – or ask students to explain – its organization as a matrix (relating the concept of a number matrix to that of a chart that organizes information in cells defined by two related axes). In pairs or small groups, have students do a close reading of the matrix chart, using the following text-dependent questions:

  1. What organizes the vertical axis? How does this axis relate to the information in the flow chart, Figure IX?
  2. What organizes the horizontal axis? How might these columns relate to the measurement of UDHR Article 25?
  3. What is an example of a clearly “quantitative” indicator listed in one of the cells of the matrix?
  4. Which illustrative indicators are listed for “Nutrition” “Outcomes”? [Note: this is a check on students’ ability to “read” a matrix chart.]
  5. How might these nutrition outcomes relate to the outcomes listed for “Food Availability” and “Food Accessibility”?

When student pairs/groups have addressed all five questions, ask them to report out what they have discovered in the matrix chart to the class.

Instructional Support and Differentiation

Less able readers might be given questions 1 and 2 to discuss, while more able groups might report out on questions 3-5, and/or offer conclusions about the relationship of the information in the chart to the ideas in the “Why Indicators…” text extract that has been studied previously.

Introduction to Text #3 and Homework

Project for students the “About WHO” home page for the World Health Organization (WHO) website []. Let them know that WHO is responsible for collecting and organizing data related to many health outcomes, among them the nutrition outcomes listed in Table 2 of the UN Guide. For homework (or independent work if computers/tablets are available in class but not at home), ask them to go to the WHO website and informally explore its vast content. Then ask them specifically to navigate to these links and scan the web pages that will be used in Primary Source Lesson #3 and subsequent Math lessons.

About WHO: 

Global Health Observatory - Underweight in Children:

Observatory Data Repository – Child Malnutrition:

WHO Child Growth Standards:

WHO Multicentre Growth Reference Study (MGRS):

Graph of Weight-for-age in Boys, birth to six months:

WHO Global Database on Body Mass Index (BMI) overview:

WHO Table of BMI for Adults % Underweight (BMI< 18.5):


Student paragraphs written for the lesson’s pre-assessment can be collected and reviewed to see how well students have been able to “close read” the two texts, interpret their meaning, and make connections between the Galbraith and Robinson quotes.

Student discussions, in small groups and full class, can be monitored to observe students’ abilities to read and interpret text, contents, flow charts, and matrix charts – all of which will be important in their study within the rest of the unit. If students have difficulty with any of these exercises, instructional intervention or support may be necessary before moving to later lessons.

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