Originally I’d intended to write about the dehumanizing impact of data, particularly as it acts on our students and educators. Maybe I still will make that argument down the line. But I think this time of the year is a better one to think about how all of this data is collected. That is, often via machine. The machine might be able to record and compute, but it doesn’t really hear and certainly can’t listen.
We talk about teaching our students media literacy and about coding literacy, but in order for them to be truly literate or be functional coders, they really need to be able to listen, to ask the right questions, and to hear with the goal of understanding what they are reading or seeing or coding.
How do we teach those skills when we are woefully poor at these skills ourselves?
“Listen to the data,” we’re told. “Make your decisions after examining the data.” But data doesn’t speak. It doesn’t tell us everything. What it does tell us largely depends on the questions we choose to ask it, not to mention how we collected it initially.
Data can be like a surly, silent, sullen teenager sitting in front of you, refusing to talk, to share, to open up. Sometimes they are intimidating, sometimes infuriating, often challenging. But it’s a challenge that adults must face. How we engage that teenager, how we get them to reveal, to open up, to share and to connect and to learn will depend on our actions, our questions, our influence on them.
With a fixation on data, we could view the teen as millions of data points. The data has been collected and shaped in a certain way, and we are supposed to sift through much of that data as students step into our classrooms and offices. We are supposed to use data in order to better understand the person sitting in front of us. We’re supposed to use data analysis to uncover students’ motivations, their needs… even when they want these to be hidden.
I hope that analogy resonates, and also makes you uncomfortable. A student is more than data points. A student is a person — rich, and complex, and unique. So then why do we do we think that simply looking at the data will provide us with answers? Most data is collected in the most efficient, but passive way: through exams and tests and zip codes and tax returns. We never ask. We avoid the qualitative, instead embracing the deceptive simplicity of the quantitative, the scientific, the numbers.
We need to be open to the qualitative, to stories. We have to start doing a better job of listening, of asking the right questions of ourselves, and then being open to the possibilities of the answers. We also need to understand the silences, to know when a gap is significant or when it isn’t. That surly teen will provide ample gaps and silences. If we listen to them, we can still learn, understanding if we need to ask more questions or if the silences just need to stand.
Our students understand more than any other generation that they are constantly being watched and monitored. Their expressions of self – those over-shares on social media, for example – represent, to my mind, an attempt at taking control of the narrative that is imposed upon them through that very constant surveillance and data collection. And we can’t simply dismiss their actions; these are opportunities to listen to our students differently than perhaps we have in the past. Lecturing about privacy rings hollow given that the students know they are subjected to searches, data-mining, and other intrusions on their so-called “privacy,” often by teachers and by school IT, by those who are lecturing them about privacy on social media.
We cannot listen to our students and really hear what they have to share with us unless we ourselves feel like we are being heard and understood. We cannot begin to think of the right questions to ask around any kind of data if our own data is being overlooked, buried, ignored, or misconstrued.
How much work have you done as an educational leader to help create spaces for listening and hearing at your school? Are you listening to the data that the machines collect? Or are you paying attention to the stories of people?