I’m getting fed up with the word ”data” that I keep hearing and reading about in the educational media. To help articulate exactly why the word conjures up such a disagreeable sensation in my gut, I’ve listed seven reasons why the word should be stricken from every educator’s vocabulary.
- ”Data” is a word from information technology, not education. We should keep in mind that ”data” was originally just a series of 1’s and 0’s in computer code, and is now just a far more complex version of this basic sequence. Education on the other hand is about human lives which are not precise and neat like computer code, but instead consist of subtlety, nuance, and emotional complexity.
- ”Data” is indiscriminately used to refer to a wide range of disparate things. When an educator says ”According to the data . . . ” who knows what they’re talking about! They could be referring to test scores, behavior ratings, dropout rates, research studies, interest inventories, budget figures, or any of a thousand other things. Converging all these elements into one word – ”data” – obstructs the clear boundaries that should exist between them.
- ”’Data” is dehumanizing when it refers to students’ lives. Student ”data” reduces complex kids to numerical artifacts. We should be encountering children and teens in terms of fully human relationships, which include aspirations, challenges, interests, abilities, idiosyncrasies, uncertainties, and more. The uniqueness of a given student is reduced to a mere set of numbers, which can result in a massive sense of alienation from real engagement with the learning process on the part of teachers and administrators.
- ”Data” emphasizes quantitative outcomes in a field that should stress qualitative results. As education has become more and more concerned with raising test scores, the focus on using data has become more intense. But education should not be about test scores. It should be about challenging students’ to think critically, to innovate, to be curious about the world around them, and to be engaged in meaningful learning experiences. These things can’t be reduced to numbers. To try to encompass all that with something called ”data” is really an insult to what is the essential core of education: authentic learning.
- ”Data” gives the illusion of educator competency but instead masks a sense of estrangement from the learning process. When a principal or teacher says ”the data suggests” they automatically promote their so-called ”expertise” in the topic at hand, even if they don’t really know what they’re talking about in real human terms. So ”data” becomes a word that educators can hide behind, promote and even use to make decisions that require far more penetrating insight into human values.
- ”Data” replaces teacher expertise with impersonal algorithms. I once gave a keynote address to a school about awakening the natural genius in kids. At the conclusion of my lecture, the superintendent told the audience: ”these things are all well and good, but if you’re going to do something different in your classroom, you’ll have to show me the data.” Show me the data! What this does is take control away from teachers, and makes them submit to impersonal statistics. Numbers should not promote that kind of control. We’re slouching toward an Orwellian world when we do this (see the novel 1984). Such oppression is a recipe for teacher burnout.
- ”Data” can easily be used to control students’ lives. For the last several years, news outlets have publicized the problems that this ”data revolution” has had on the personal lives of children and adolescence. Large corporations collect data from their so-called ”personalized” learning programs and use it to sell products and gain other advantages in the marketplace. This represents a major invasion of the privacy of these kids. Moreover, a student’s ”data” can follow them through the grades, and if the numbers are perceived as deficient, ”data” can stigmatize them and lead to decisions that can block their advancement in school and later life.
Educators might wonder: ”If we’re not going to use the word ‘data’ what should we use instead?” How about talking about real human experience? So that instead of saying: ”his data doesn’t look promising” you can say: ”he’s failing in math, but I believe has the potential to do well as long as I pair him with another student who can encourage him.” Maybe you’re already doing this. But the continued use of the word ”data” is going to make such humanistic communications far less common in the increasingly mechanistic world of education.
For more information on the depersonalization currently taking place in American education (and the potential solutions to counter this trend), see my book If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education.
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