Stargazing: a data story
Data and assessment in education
For Matthew Savage, gathering and using data in context to inform our teaching and guide our support for students is nothing short of a moral imperative.
“If you wanna do data science, learn how it is a technical, cultural, economic, and social discipline that has the ability to consolidate and rearrange societal power structures.” (Hugo Bowne-Anderson, Data Science Anthropologist)
“ . . . saying so to some Means nothing; others it leaves Nothing to be said.” (‘Nothing to be Said’ by Philip Larkin)
What I do
When my friends and family ask me what I do, and I say that I help schools worldwide use data more effectively, their response reminds me of Larkin’s poem. Because data is cold and remote, right? And a world away from the essential purpose of education. In fact, many an educator fears data, and rightly so, as the stick with which they have been, or might be, beaten, in the name of accountability.
Data and DEIJ
However, for me, data, and assessment, are a moral and a revolutionary act. Data and assessment are, if you like, the Great Leveller. And, therefore, they are a choice, and one that we, as leaders, must make.
I am reminded of what David Mamet said about stagecraft: “Everything which does not put forward the meaning of the play impedes the meaning of the play.” It is increasingly my opinion that everything we do as school leaders, in the domain of data and assessment, that does not advance the pursuit of DEIJ does, in fact, impede it.
Indeed, since being introduced to the worlds of ‘warm’ and ‘street’ data, the sometimes messy tangle of my thoughts about assessment have been woven together as an ensign for equity and justice. And this now informs and infuses all of the work I do with schools. In fact, data and assessment can almost serve as my trojan horse, through which I can help schools reflect upon the fundamentals of their culture and climate.
Using data in context
As school leaders, if do not ask ourselves, as Norah Bateson would do, “But what is the warm data on this?”, if we allow ourselves to take any piece of data out of context, to pluck it, cold, from the ecosystem on which it depends, and which depends on it, we are compounding “already wicked problems”. And we know these problems – that our schools are not equitable, and that systemic oppression resides in the paradigm we have inherited.
Listen to the stories
And if we do not “pound the pavement”, and intentionally seek, listen to, and reflect upon the authentic stories of those students, and groups, currently residing on the margins of successful learning and positive wellbeing in our community then, again, as Freire would say, this is a violence which “dehumanizes the oppressed”. Safir and Dugan provide an itemised guide to the ethnography this requires, and to the ‘Equity Transformation Cycle’ which must follow.
Data as stars in a galaxy
However, if we take all the jigsaw pieces of data at our disposal, and we carefully put them together, something amazing, and revolutionary can happen. A wise ‘data storyteller’ with whom I have the privilege to work explained to me that, for her, data in our schools are a galaxy. We need to seek out even the faintest stars, and join them together into constellations; each constellation will help us read the story of the marginalised students in our care, and help render our schools more equitable and just as a result.
Stargazing: telling multiple stories
In her 2009 TED Talk, Adichie warned of the danger of a single story, and we must heed that warning when seeking equity and justice for our students. The disengagement or underachievement, poor wellbeing or challenging behaviours, of a student, or group of students, do not exist in isolation, independent either of the ecosystems of which they are a part or of the stories which precede them. And therefore our data dashboards, and our data conversation, need to remember this.
So the next time I am asked what I do, I will say that I am a stargazer. And that will be enough.
An experienced international school principal and architect of #TheMonaLisaEffect®, Matthew is a consultant and trainer, speaker and coach, working with educators worldwide to help use a constellation of data to measure what really matters and seek equity and justice for all.
For more about Matthew and his work, please see https://www.monalisaeffect.me/home
[A shorter version of this article was published previously on the Diverse Educators’ blog.]