December 18, 2020

Data without theory is like jigsaw pieces not put together yet

We live in a world of data. Maybe it’s more accurate to say, we live in an era of extensive data gathering. Our cell phones gather data about us, corporations gather data on their customers and products, governments gather data on the effectiveness of programs, farmers gather data about weather patterns and crop rotations, the list goes on.

Schools Produce Data

The purpose of school has morphed into an institution producing data points about kids. When I started my doctorate program almost 20 years ago, the fad in education was “data-driven decision making”. (Interestingly, I never really understood what that meant beyond the fact that educators were asked to justify their actions based on “data”.)

In simple terms, data gathering in education is the score students produce when they take tests. These tests may be “end of course” exams, achievement tests, or other “formative” tests. The idea is that educators analyze the data and then make decisions on what courses students should take and what kind of instruction students will be exposed to.

Data gathering in schools has become so prominent that many school districts hire staff members whose only job is to analyze the data the school produces…a colossal waste of resources if you ask me.

To What End?

With schools awash in data, you might suspect that clarity has evolved in the education sector about what makes “good” education or “good” schools. You are wrong if you think there is clarity. Schools (and educators) have forgotten that data gathering is supposed to be a means to an end. The end is (I assume) better life outcomes for students. The means is supposed to be the data gathered on students.

Schools (and education) have confused the means and ends. Data gathering has become an end in and of itself. Schools gather data just for the sake of gathering data. In most cases, they are forced to gather this data by law. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Every Student Succeeds Act require extensive data gathering (and data warehousing).

When data gathering becomes a compliance issue, it becomes an end in and of itself.

No Theory

The bottom line is that data is worthless unless there is a theory as to why the data is being gathered. Proponents of data mining students may sprinkle bromides about “preparing kids for the future”, or “21st-century work skills”, but these are not theories. They are (at best) amorphous sound bites justifying data gathering.

What is needed is a strong theory of the intersection of learning and schooling. I offer a simple idea.

The learning experience is ultimately what is important for the student…if we are willing to place the student at the center of schooling. The learning experience is defined by the learning opportunities made available to the student and the learning style of the student. Using this as a theory, data gathering can be targeted to help prove, or disprove, this idea for schooling and learning.

Here is what is important, I am not claiming this theory as something everyone needs to believe in. I believe in this. You don’t have to. I hope some of you vehemently disagree!

My point is that every school leader must have a working theory about learning and schooling based on their knowledge and experience, their school setting, and the larger community in which the school sits. Once a theory is created, data will become more valuable.


About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

  • Excellent diagram! Data without theory is inane. Identifying the desired outcomes, then tracking progress with appropriate data makes sense. If we are to determine outcomes, there must be a clear understanding of what is to be achieved.

    • Now here is a radical thought process. Let’s put the learner at the center of learning and see how we can use data to assist the learner in learning. Simple indeed!

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