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?

By Janelle

Space geek, science nerd extraordinaire. That's me! Want to know more, visit the About page.


  1. I have had many of your concerns about the use–or misuse–of data in education, but I came without your appreciation of data from your science background. Much of the focus on short term gains reminds me of speculators in the stock market–day traders and those who sell risky investments without explaining all of the risks (like the banking crisis that sliced and diced mortgages and sold houses to people who could afford them.) I am worried that we are headed for a similar crisis in education, and the victims who are going to be hurt the most are our students.

    1. Kay, thanks so much for your comment. I love your analogy to day trading. I had not thought of our use of data in that way, but it makes a lot of sense. I agree we are headed towards a crisis in education. I just hope educators take a stand before it’s too late.

  2. I really like your point about controlled vs. non-controlled data. After completing 2 science degrees and a masters in environmental science, I entered the education field. Educational research is oftentimes laughable through the lens of a scientist. Control groups are not only not used, but arguably unethical. Experiments are often performed on students with multiple variables employed at once, leaving us with little evidence to support or debunk what we are trying in our classrooms…and I’ll leave those variables that our students inadvertently bring to the table out of this post (not to minimize them, but to emphasize the lack of validity of the methods of educational research). I hope that some day educators, administrators, parents and politicians will acknowledge that we should not be running scientific experiments with our kiddos as pawns…that we realize that the so-called data that we are using to drive what we do every day is simply not reliable. I hope that some day we, as professionals are allowed the liberty to use what we know from years of working with kids day in and day out to do what is truly best for kids…and to daily improve what we are doing based on what we learn every day from them. Until that day…I shut my door and teach not science, not data, but my kids…for that is what they are…curious, quirky, creative kids.

    1. I wonder if other content teachers are as bothered about the specifics of data misuse as science and math teachers must be. The best part is you’re right – most of the time we can focus on the fact that we teach kids! 🙂

  3. When I talk to my team- I almost never use the word data. I always say- information- it’s the same thing. I remember as a new teacher feeling hindered by data collection but when it was reframed, when I took away the 4 letter word and thought of it is information to help me grow, improve, support, and encourage, it took much of the fear out of data for me.

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