Data occupies a somewhat curious place within education. Mention it to teachers and you tend to get one of two responses. One group will roll their eyes and with great sarcasm how data is "so exciting”. The other group responds with something akin to “actually I quite like data” indicating that experience has shown them that they are members of a small group. The question is why do some people find data to be a useful and fascinating tool while others see it as a good method for inducing sleep?
Much of it is to do with the way in which we experience data. Long lists of numbers, highly confusing charts and extensive presentations that show how one factor can be clearly shown to have a loose correlation with another. One half of the audience is fascinated, wants to see the underlying data and looks forward to a chance to dissect the numbers later in their own time. The other feels like they are being asked to make sense of an optical illusion; one of those where if you squint just right an image of zebra appears. The presenter has obviously spent a great deal of time crunching the numbers and are convinced there is a story to be told, but most people are not seeing it. Too often the capacity to analyse data is not accompanied by the ability to transform it into a compelling narrative. Instead of a riveting moment between the lead characters of a film we have an extended scene of Jar Jar Binks.
Data shows that 86% of people are more likely to believe any claim that includes reference to a compelling statistic, a figure that rises to an astounding 92% if the claim indicates an effect size and the sentence “according to research”. Disappointingly only 7.1% of people recognise that the previous sentence, and this one are both entirely fictional. This use of data to add weight to any argument has become so widespread and so frequently proven to be flawed, erroneous, blatantly false or almost immediately contradicted by another equally confusing data set, means that the use of data has for many lost all impact. Indeed, while some are happy to believe anything with a good data set behind it, others immediately question any piece of data and search for the lie as soon as they hear it.
In education data is all too often used to support a claim that the claimant already believes to be true. Not always, but often, data is used to support a plan already well under way. A new writing programme in a school is more likely to be embraced if data is found to show it is needed. Rather than looking for the story in the data and from there exploring the consequence of the patterns which emerge, data is used to build a case in support of an argument. This reversal of the intended role of data is perhaps why many people so quickly turn off when data is introduced to the debate. It is not that they are disinterested, but that they know what will follow is a compelling demonstration of why the plan they are being asked to contribute to is a foregone conclusion.
Data in education is closely connected to assessment and to the type of assessment that is easily reported in numbers. There is a growing awareness that much of the high-stakes assessment movement has more to do with command and control than it does with student success. Traditionally assessments such as NAPLAN, PISA, TIMSS, & PIRLS have measured what is easy to measure and the data has then been used to argue for more of a certain style of teaching and learning that might prepare students for more of this style of assessment but offers them little value beyond their school years. This use of data is so compelling that teachers come to question their own professional judgement. Although a teacher may see his/her students learning on a daily basis, engage in dialogue with them about where they are with their learning and where they need to go next, even though they may gather copious artefacts of learning that demonstrate achievement, many teachers feel that they require something in the form of numbers to justify their decisions.
It is our negative experiences with data that prejudice against its better uses. Data should be a tool that allows us to better see what might be. Through the thoughtful use of data, powerful stories can be revealed. When data is allowed to speak, when it is handled respectfully and with a desire to use it to reveal a truth that might otherwise remain hidden, it is a powerful tool. When it is communicated in ways that make its story plain and understandable by all it becomes a tool that invites dialogue and shared understanding. With access to great quantities of data and the computing power required to make this information accessible, data should be viewed as a great asset rather than as something of a black-art of which we should be sceptical.
By Nigel Coutts