Assessment, Leadership, Opinion, Promising Practices

Don’t Let Data Drive Your Dialogue

Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’” – Mark Twain

Why should our dialogue be “driven” by data? I certainly understand that data can provide a provocation, challenge, affirmation or contradiction that sparks dialogue – but why should it “drive” that dialogue? Data itself has no meaning, until it is organized and displayed in charts or graphs that can be interpreted, usually in multiple ways. These interpretations may usefully inform our dialogue, decisions and subsequent actions so data definitely can be valuable, but it often seems to be granted undue reverence simply because it is numerical. Although insight can derive from analysis of data, equally it can arise out of intuition and, in fact, I wonder if some analyses are not actually rationalizations subconsciously imposed on data to justify intuitive speculations.

The notion of “data-driven dialogue” was introduced to counter the perception of an excessive reliance on unjustified opinion and personal preference in educational discourse. I think this correction was required and believe there is more work to be done to reduce the aversion to data that still exists for some. However, evidence can take many forms and wisdom has many roots. All should be valued. Numerical data is only one form.

Some not only revere numerical data but argue that data is only useful if it is derived from the self-declared “gold standard” of randomized controlled trial methodology – for example, the American government’s What’s Working Clearinghouse has this bias. This fanaticism arises from a hyper-rational perspective on human experience. Positivist science can be highly informative, but I cannot imagine why one would not also welcome the insights that have been distilled from experience through more qualitative processes.

At the school level, richer insights will arise through triangulation based on multiple methods than through any one avenue alone. Data should be used to inform our dialogue at every opportunity but it does not speak for itself. Data is created through an imperfect and incomplete recording and codification of experience and only acquires meaning through fallible human interpretation.  

It is in this interpretive process and in the subsequent discussion of what to do about what one has learned that dialogue is required, and this dialogue is the process through which understanding is constructed and commitment to action develops. Data informs the dialogue but does not determine its outcomes. The insights, questions and perspectives that teachers bring to the interpretive process are the source of its power and consequence as much as the data that instigates the dialogue.

So let’s not let data drive us, but also let’s not denigrate it. Professional dialogue is more powerful when it is informed by evidence of all sorts, including numerical data, as well as the intuition and wisdom of experience.

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Bruce Beairsto

Retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University

Bruce Beairsto is a retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

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