Thursday, January 19, 2012

Data Is Not a Flashlight #dayofdata #edchat #edreform

Yesterday the #dayofdata hashtag caught my eye as it floated down my Twitter stream so I decided to follow it and got sucked in by the current. At first I didn't know what it was but soon realized that this was the hashtag for an event featuring panelists that included "education reformers" such as Arne Duncan and Michelle Rhee. Needless to say, I found a lot of what I was reading in the stream of live tweets from the event objectionable to say the least. But one tweet in particular has caused a rash that I just can't get out from under my skin:

Aimee Guidera: Data isn't a hammer, it's a flashlight. Need to make sure data is meeting people's needs. #dayofdata 1 day ago via Twitter for iPad · powered by @socialditto

A quick search on YouTube finds this video from EdWeek where Aimee Guidera explains this statement:

I was actually hoping for something more eye opening and enlightening than that (or at least illuminating since after all, it is flashlights she is talking about).

So, anyway, here was my initial response when I read that tweet:

@rachelgwaltney data as flashlight has the analogy all wrong. In Plato's allegory the light created only shadows and echos. #dayofdata 1 day ago via web · powered by @socialditto

to which I got this reply:

@anderscj Better than being entirely in the dark! #dayofdata 1 day ago via Twitter for iPhone · powered by @socialditto

@rachelgwaltney I think you missed my point. 14 hours ago via Twitterrific · powered by @socialditto

I have written about this a few times before but I think Plato's allegory is perfect for understanding the problem with student data. If we must use a flashlight in our analogy for understanding student data the flashlight is the instrument which we use to extract the data by shining it on students. What the flashlight produces as a result are not students but rather the students' shadows. By saying we need to use student data to improve instruction is like saying that I should use my shadow to help me improve my appearance.

The big problem, and the one that makes arguing with these dataphiles so difficult, is in Plato's allegory the prisoners who were released and shown what makes the objects, shown the truth, were seen by the prisoners who weren't released as having come back unable to see.
[Socrates] And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the cave, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.
Who was at this event? Who was on the panel? Were there any teachers there? Did any of the panelists have any history in teaching (besides taping children's mouths shut and taking pleasure in firing people)? And who do these "reformers" listen to? A quick look at who the people at this event live tweeting follow on Twitter tells me they probably don't listen to the voices of educators who actually work with the students whose data they are concerned with. They probably see us as having lost our sight. We see students, they see shadows. The student doesn't matter so long as the shadow they cast looks good. The result is we end up bending and contorting students in ways that are unnatural and don't make much sense just so the shadows they produce with their data flashlight look good.

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