Let's not let the data blind us to the obvious

matrixThere’s a story today on the BBC that schools are failing the brightest pupils – this is according to a new report from Ofsted, the UK’s schools inspectorate. The article includes various responses to the report. They are all in generic  ‘press release speak’ and their content is broadly predictable based on the politics and incentives of the respondant.

I’m not going to get into the debate about high performing students, but one point did strike me as being of more general significance.

The most depressing finding of the report was that teachers often didn’t even know who the brightest students in their classes were.

Has education become such a machine? Apparently so. Here’s a quote from the article, ostensibly showing how we needn’t worry about this whole story, because schools are cleverly getting on top of the issue:

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders said: “Schools are better than ever at using data to target specific groups of pupils and fully understand the need to identity the most able and ensure they are appropriately challenged.

Who are ‘schools’ in this context? Some analyst in the IT department looking
at the data? What are ‘specific groups’ – who is that exactly? How about actual teachers using their eyes, ears and brains to identify not groups but the specific abilities of each of their actual pupils? Any real teacher should see this stuff popping out in front of them all day long.

‘Data’ is one of these new buzz-words. And the best data is ‘Big’! As undeniably powerful and useful as ‘analytics’ are in their appropriate – and I grant sometimes dramatic – applications, they are positively harmful when they distance us from reality and distract us from – or provide excuses for our missing – obvious and important basic propositions about our worlds. Such as, if you are a teacher, that some of your pupils are finding your lesson easy, are bored, staring out of the window or chattering, and could do with being stretched further.

Or, if you are in business, that your customers are unhappy with the call centre, or staff morale and therefore customer service is tanking because of a draconian manager. Or that the investment manager’s strategy is too good to be true…


You may also like: Be Careful Who Collects Your Data.

© 2013 Andrew Bass. All Rights Reserved.