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Saturday, 27 February 2016

Awash in Data: The perils of a data-driven education culture

Where's the data? What kind of data has value? And what are educators in schools doing with all this data?

Here's a great piece from Education Week on the uselessness of tomes of education data.

As a high school teacher, I've been struggling with all the emphasis on data and scores. We keep track of tons of scores -- standardized test scores, predictive scores, mock exam scores -- in a huge excel spreadsheet at school.  My kids complete math drills online, and then get scoresheets that track their performances in a number of different ways. Teachers who use Harkness tables for student run discussions are encouraged to gather data on which students speak and how much they speak. And in the Lab school started by Sal Khan in the US, (which I wrote about here), every conversation becomes an exercise in data gathering.

We educators are awash in a sea of data.

But you know what? I think that all this data collection has little value. And in fact, I think that our emphasis on data can actually be a dangerous thing. And here's why.

Firstly, as the author of the article in Ed Week points out, most of this data doesn't lead to student improvement in any way. In the old-fashioned world of education, teachers would give kids tests or assessments that required the kids to study and work. Then teachers would grade these tests/assessments and offer lots of targeted feedback. Kids would do "corrections," or in the case of an essay, "a revision," to show that they had learnt from their mistakes. While teachers wouldn't be collecting reams of data, they would be engaged in making sure that students learnt from their mistakes. These teacher-developed classroom assessments were all that parents, students, and teachers really needed to ensure that kids were learning.

In today's world, kids take a million tests that have nothing to do with what's going on in the classroom, and schools are constantly trying to mine all kinds of data -- but there's no feedback loop from teacher to student, and there's no emphasis on corrections, revisions, and actual learning. So what's the point?

Secondly, there's something inherently dehumanizing about all this data. The information that I feel matters most to me as a teacher is not stuff that can be captured using numbers and spreadsheets.

It's not numerical data I'm looking for.
What I'm looking for is the look of triumph in a student's eye when she finally makes connections and understands something important.
I'm looking at the child who refuses to meet my eye because he's clearly upset about something.
And I learn a lot from those casual conversations in the hallway, or the off-hand comment a child makes about a book she just read.
I'm looking for the wonderful piece of writing that a child shares with me, where I can see what she's thinking about and how she's working through the writing process.
I'm looking for the feeling of energy in the classroom as kids engage in a heated discussion.

Increasingly, I feel as though technology, testing, and the emphasis on data collection are somehow dehumanizing education.

We're turning a fundamentally human profession based on human relationships into a data gathering exercise where kids become reduced to a series of numbers in an excel spreadsheet. And that scares me.

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