Can the Numbers Lie? I

If you’re reading this post “live,”  Progress Reports go home tomorrow in my face-to-face teaching world.  All day today, students and teachers will dance: “Can I know my grade?  Why is it so low?  Is there anything I can do?”  Mid-reporting-period progress reports are intended to give a wake-up call, a chance to fix things while they’re still fixable – but our students have learned to massage those numbers, to make them look good enough to placate their parents.

For so many students – and teachers, too – school is all about the numbers.  If those numbers are “OK” or “pretty good” or “not that bad,”  learning must be happening … right?  But “I got a good grade” easily turns into “I get good grades.”  And then it’s a short, easy slope leading down to “I always get good grades because I’m smart.”  Or even “I’m smart, so I should have a good grade – what’s wrong with you, Mean Evil Teacher?”

Grades are problematic.  On Google+ on Friday, Debbie had this to say:

Grading…I am interested in reading more about your insights after your adventure this week. The topic still makes the hair on the back of my neck tingle, and not in a good way.

One of the big, recurring themes of SXSWEdu was data and analytics.  There were upbeat blog posts;  angry Tweets about privacy concerns; skeptical conversations about profiting from data.  Both of my co-presenters – Emily here and here, and Gerol here, here, here, and here – have spoken to these issues.  At that first session I attended Wednesday – the one with the beautiful bag, the Slinky, and the gumball machine – the description promised software that would “personalize learning” through data and analytics.  I was skeptical, and as I mentioned, my skepticism –  for the current version – wasn’t misplaced.  Even if you focus on useful data (how long a student takes to answer a question, how much random mouse movement there is), it’s a long, difficult step from collecting the data to building custom learning playlists.  And it’s even harder to build personal playlists, accounting for each learner’s needs, preferences, and strengths as well as “what the numbers say.”

Whose task is that, anyway,  if 21st-century learning environment sshould build ownership and agency and purpose?  If the learning – and the data – belong to the learner, should each learner build his or her own playlists?  Two of the three CEOs that Bill Gates spoke to during the SXSW EDU closing keynote on Thursday – Jessie Woolley-Wilson from DreamBox and Diane Tavenner from Summit Schools – directly addressed the issue, and the third, Iwan Streichenberger from InBloom, addressed it indirectly because InBloom creates the “plumbing” that connects different data sources.

In this fast-approaching world of personalized playlists – where learners construct their own playlists, as Summit Schools’ students have begun to do – what happens to the teacher?  Do we shift from deliverer of content to playlist consultant as needed?

Ms. X and Mr. Y are definitely not ready for that … and I’m not sure I am, either!  I want to be, think I need to be … but am I?  And is that why, despite our intentions and plans at the beginning, we’ve never developed the kinds of analytics for Tres Columnae that both Operation LAPIS and Dungeons & Discourse have always incorporated?  Because I’m not ready … or because the platform we need doesn’t yet exist?

On Friday afternoon, after our morning content-area sessions, there was a school-wide meeting about “data” and “data literacy.”  We’ll be studying this book, with a Plan of Action to be revealed soon.  Teachers will bring in “some data” in the form of a “grade distribution” for the first reporting period of the second semester – that is, a count of the number of A’s, B’s, C’s, etc., our students earned or received or got.  I don’t  know what we’ll be doing with these, though one colleague was anxiously asking how to make such a thing.  Why don’t you look at the grades, I asked her, then count the number  on each level?  But that sounded “too hard” – just as it was “too hard” or “too time-consuming”  for many to read the three short articles (5 pages in all) we’d been asked to read before Friday.

So the discussion about data on Friday  was brief, because folks who had “forgotten” or “not had enough time” to read were uncharacteristically silent.  We talked about sources of data, validity and reliability, the kinds of data that are useful for different sorts of instructional decisions.  I had already calculated two different sets of “grade distributions”  – the overall one, plus a distribution of  Major Assessment, Individual Response, Interpretive Reading scores.  When I used the word “granular” in that conversation, I was astounded to find that many of my colleagues had never heard it … at least applied to data.  They collect data, because they’re told to, and they analyze data when they’re told to … and when they’re told to, they even, grudgingly, share some data with students, parents, each other.  But using the data to help learners … that’s a strange, new world if you believe that “grades are earned” and “my grading is rigorous” and “if you bring in a box of tissues, you’ll get an extra 100 for a homework grade.”

Some form of assessment – self-assessment, certainly  – is surely important in learning, and it’s especially important for learners  transitioning from teaching factories to joyful learning communities.  But in a joyful community, does that self-assessment translate into the numbers and data that 20th-century organizations seek?  And who owns the data, the results,  the learning process?  Those are the really scary questions we’ll need to address as our journey continues.

What will I need to do  to keep the conversation going, to keep it focused on the really uncomfortable place without terrifying my colleagues too much?  And what kinds of “data conversations” will I need to have with students?

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Published in: on March 11, 2013 at 10:35 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for this reflection! Glad you thought my blog post was ‘upbeat’. 🙂


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