Data: It's a four letter word

I love data.

I love numbers.

I love collecting data, analyzing it, drawing conclusion, finding new questions, and exploring all over again.

I love data. Without data, science would be difficult to communicate.

Data is beautiful.

Numbers explain the world around us and help us make sense of our daily lives. I remember the first time I read in my calculus textbook that you could calculate where a rainbow would form. I loved calculating relationships in statistics. It is thrilling to collect titration data, put it into a spreadsheet, generate a titration curve, and discover the equivalence point of the acid.

I love data.

But I hate data.

dataThe data I once loved has become perverted. The students in my room have become numbers on a spreadsheet. It is no longer so much about understanding or learning; it is about changing those numbers and making them higher. We collect numerical data constantly comparing it to the data we collect the day before, the week before, the month before, the year before. We are continuously asked what the data is telling us about our students. What are the numbers showing? Now collect this piece of data. Enter it into this spreadsheet. Enter it into that spreadsheet. Data, data, data. Data focusing on short term gains. The word data, as used constantly in schools, has almost become profane to me.

And I’m a science teacher! Data drives what I teach. How can I hate data?

It seems like we forget that we teach children. That some students in our room may show measurable short term growth, but what we really need to measure is long term growth. Data is rarely looked at for a particular student once they leave an institution (elementary school, middle school, high school), so longitudinal data is scarce. I want the focus in my classroom to be on the joy of learning, of understanding, of discovering. I want to help my students create a long term way of thinking and approaching the world.

Sometimes, the data we collect is not numerical. It’s not measurable and quantifiable, but that should not make it any less valid. How much joy is there when a concept finally clicks for a student? You can see it in their eyes – that moment of elation, of understanding. Is that measurable? I suppose in a way it is, but it is not something you will see on a spreadsheet in columns of names and numbers.

What about when a child drives parents crazy in a science museum explaining all of the exhibits to them ecstatically because she learning all about it in science? Did that show up on the test? Without stories from the student, you may never know the moment even took place. But was there growth? Was there learning?

How can we shift the paradigm from focusing on numbers on a spreadsheet to measure growth to something more valuable? I would love for our focus to move to student portfolios and student reflections. To conversations with students about their growth and learning. For a child to explain to me what they know and understand and then to document it not in a spreadsheet but in a journal of learning.

Perhaps for me, the trouble is that I am a scientist. I like controlled experiments. Students are not a controlled experiment and neither is their learning process. The learning cannot easily be quantified in a spreadsheet. What happens in the classroom is influenced by outside factors that I may never know about.

Perhaps for me, the trouble is that my goal is not to improve test scores. My goal is for my students to fall in love with science. To appreciate the world around them. To learn to ask beautiful questions that lead them on a life’s journey of learning and discovery. To maybe, one day, look back at the time they spent in my class and think, “Mrs. Wilson helped me see that I could be a scientist (or engineer).”

Perhaps for me, the trouble is that I want students to love collecting scientific data but not to be caught up worrying about grades and test data. I want the focus to shift from making an A to deep learning and understanding. (If it were up to me, we would through grades out the window, but that is a discussion for another day.)

As a scientist, I love data. But as a teacher, an educator, data is a four letter word. When used continuously to describe students, it is profane. We must change this!

Data is a four letter word.

I love data.

But I hate data.

What about you?