Slaves to data- How figures and numbers are affecting the way we teach

When I became a facilitator in an international school several years ago, I was floored to learn about innovative practices in the education industry. The comparison between my own schooling and today’s classrooms was stark. I still remember my coordinator telling me that if she entered my classroom and couldn’t see me amongst my students’ activities, it was a good thing! Gone were the days of sage on the stage. 

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Every time I discovered something new, I reveled in how wonderfully student-centric schooling was becoming. The term ‘rubric’ continues to send pleasurable shivers down my spine. The word ‘checklist’ sets my students into motion with determination and focus. The freedom to create differentiated tasks and instructions for students based on their learning styles was a joy rather than a chore.
Sometimes my revelry in the modernity of education is interrupted by arresting thoughts on a few practices that I still find antiquated.

My dream of a fair and just classroom is frequently interrupted by my arch nemesis-data collection. 

Why do we need data?

I am a slave to data. I cannot deny the fact, and I cannot escape it either. To make my classroom better, I need data.

My requirements as an educator elicit that I should be on top of who needs help, who is excelling, and who the perennial dreamers are. My data makes me a better teacher and an excellent planner.

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Education is data-driven business; whether it relates to marks, grades, or examinations, data is a means to an end. While data serves many uses, I sometimes feel overwhelmed with the amount of data at my fingertips. To add to this, most of that data was added by teachers like me, accumulated over sweat, blood and tears. Can we live without data? Probably not. But how far does the collection of data affect us in our classrooms?

Are we slaves to data collection?

Data collection- a task that hangs on the head of every educator. The Jekyll to our Hyde, collecting data is an arduous task that throws spanners into planning for our classrooms. Making thinking visible, tangible, and, more importantly, recordable means that we must conduct activities in a tailor-made manner. If we need to record responses, actions, plans, inquiry paths, then allowing questioning in the classroom becomes a much larger and broader task than before. Where we would have earlier gone with the flow, we now need to restrict ourselves within premises that need to be recorded.

Management requires data to ensure that their staff is on top of everything. They in turn, will need to submit data higher, thus keeping the ‘data hierarchy’ in check.

Yet, the pressure of data collection rests primarily on teachers as they are directly responsible for collecting it at the source-the students.

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When asked about how many things teachers were required to document per week, forty three percent said they had at least two things to record whereas 29 percent claimed that they had over six documents to update per week.

Forty three percent of teachers also claimed to be spending 1-2 hours per week documenting. It is important to note that a whopping sixty four percent thought that this documentation is essential, and believe that the data is being combed over regularly by management and is being used in a constructive way to form policies, new strategies and more.

Why does data collection matter to teachers?

For most teachers, the most significant victories are in the smaller moments. Emotional wins occur every day and make us feel that we are making a difference in someone’s life. Getting through to a child who is struggling can feel life-altering. 

However, how can you fit these experiences into the jargon of data collection?

A child who battled the whole year with academics but has overcome insurmountable hurdles to just be there, where do we place that child in the data spectrum? Can data interpret the little victories?

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Data is black or white, true or false, a narrative of victories or failures. There is no room for grey areas, and yet teaching and learning is all about the shades of grey.

How can we possibly encompass each child into the box of a single piece of data when there is so much more to say?

I also find the compilation of data time-consuming. The time that I could spend enriching my classes invariably goes into filling excel sheets, supplying evidence to management, and wondering if I have recorded the results of all conducted assessments. I feel perennially guilt-ridden while marking a child ‘developing’ or ‘beginning’ on a rubric because I know that the child is capable of more, but what they can show me cannot be encapsulated within that activity. Learning styles are usually left by the wayside when recording data, as whatever is measurable usually counts for more.

The balance-

As educators, we can only hope to create a balance between data and the foundation of how we teach. When we begin to feel like slaves to data, the alarm bells should sound, and we should start to introspect on coming back to why we became teachers in the first place. In the last two years, SEL has come into schools in a huge way. The concepts of mindfulness and the promotion of student well-being have taken the world by storm. 

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However, I do not see anyone asking for data on how well students have acclimatized to life after a pandemic. This is because the essential things in life remain those that cannot be identified directly; these are intangible and have emotional value. While these qualities cannot be directly measured, they will form the basis for everything the data will later hinge upon. As teachers, let us not forget that our most extraordinary work lies in building up the next generation and imbuing them with values and qualities that they acknowledge to be crucial in life. Rather than being slaves to data, let us pledge to treat data as what it is- a necessary part of the system that should never determine how our students or we feel when they wake up in the morning.

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