Thursday, 24 April 2014

Data Exhaust

At a recent educational technology conference in Phoenix Constance Steinkuehler mentioned the term 'data exhaust' in passing to describe the numbers pouring out of testing.  The idea of data as pollution has been with me for a while.  The statistics I've seen derived from data in education have often been farcical attempts at justifying questionable programming.  It's gotten to the point that when someone starts throwing charts and graphs up in a presentation I assume they are hiding something.

Constance's term 'data exhaust' had me tumbling through metaphorical implications.  If the data we generate out of education is the exhaust, what are we doing when we turn the education system toward producing data exhaust for its own sake?  No student will ever face a standardized test in the working world, it's a completely unrealistic and limited way in which to measure learning let alone prepare students for the rest of their lives.  Using standardized testing to measure learning has us revving the education vehicle at high rpm in neutral; we're making a lot of smoke and not going anywhere.

Is data always useless?  Not at all, but the tendency to find patterns and turn data in statistics takes something already abstract and abstracts it even further.  That people then take these inferences and limited slices of information as gospel points to the crux of the crisis in American education.  We end up with what we think are facts when they are really fictions that use math of lend an air of credibility.

Even with statistics and data metrics off the table, the idea of looking at the data exhaust pouring out of education as a way of directing future action demonstrates staggering shortsightedness.  Education is not a data driven, linear or binary enterprise, it is a complex human one.  We are not producing expert test takers, we should be producing well rounded human beings that can thrive in a complex, competitive, data rich century.  No standardized test can measure that.

We pay less and
produce more by
focusing on pedagogy

via USC Rossier's
online Doctor of Education 
If you took your poorly running car into a mechanic and they just kept revving the engine harder and harder while watching smoke billow out of the back you'd think something was wrong with them, yet that is how American education is tuning itself.  They then wonder why they aren't scoring well in world rankings.  If we want the education vehicle to take us somewhere we need to crack open the hood and take a look at the engine, but what is that engine?  What actually makes the engine of education run well?  It isn't fixating on the data exhaust.

Canada has performed very well in world education rankings.  We find ourselves able to keep up with some of the world's best education systems, like Finland, and we do it at a much lower cost per student than the US has managed to.  It looks like all that testing and data exhaust fixation costs a lot more than your students' well being, it's also hugely inefficient.

A well running education system focuses on pedagogy.  It is what fuels it, it is what makes the system serve its students using the best possible learning practices.  Pedagogy is a tricky concept, and it doesn't offer simplistic solutions that digital technology companies can app-up, but it does give everyone, no matter how much they may disagree on the details, a common goal.

There was a lot of talk about coming together and pulling in the same direction over the Common Curriculum at this conference.  We aren't all on the same page in Canada when it comes to processes or how the system should run, but pedagogy is on everyone's mind.  Best practices have to drive education.  Having standards isn't a bad thing, but when you're so fixated on the data exhaust you're producing that you forget fundamental pedagogical practice, you've lost sight of what education should be in the data smog you've created.