Our ‘modern’ education system is utterly obsessed with making comparisons.
It has reached the point now, that almost everything teachers do in school has a key performance indicator or target attached to it.
We work in jobs where our salaries, job security and in many cases our feelings of self-worth, are dependent on the comparisons made on our behalf.
And nothing seems as important as the management of data in many schools .. who mine it, process it and measure it fanatically.
If this orgy of comparison was in the best interests of students - and produced an environment which built the essential skills they need for life, I would not be writing this post.
Sadly in many respects, the current system achieves the opposite for a large proportion of learners - and creates a hostile and punishing environment for those who teach them.
But things haven't always been like this, so what has changed?
Somewhere along the line, the ‘Educational Scientists’ took control - and there are 7 BIG reasons why this is a bad thing for students and those who teach them ..
1. Using a Scientific Approach to Teaching 'Real Human Beings' Doesn't Work
It's more than a little controversial to say that the massive availability of data in our school systems is actively making education worse.
'Educational Scientists' believe that the closer we are to the data, the more improvements we can make to the system ..
.. and the better we can make outcomes for learners.
They are wrong - but where does this idea come from?
Our capitalist system is so proud of the ‘efficiencies’ it has found in producing tons of things the world doesn’t really need - and is now applying the same scientific principles to education.
Measure - Test - 'Improve' - Measure - Test - 'Improve'
This might work to produce homogenous products, all required to be identical and consistent with each other ..
.. but when the same process is applied to individual children (and the teachers who teach them) - the system just ends up telling everyone they aren’t good enough, repeatedly.
Did anyone ever stop to consider what the psychological impact on young minds (or older ones for that matter) would be, by focusing constantly on what we lack?
The sad truth is that our current system often results in students who can't wait to leave the classroom - and teachers who aren't far behind them.
Learning should be fun. It should be an adventure .. not a series of predictable assessment points - and targets that are changed as soon as you achieve something.
By focusing at the micro level so relentlessly, we have forgotten the importance of the 'experience'.
In the mad rush to measure and improve as much as we can, we have lost the magic of learning.
Students today have a myriad of attractive possibilities competing for their attention .. reducing their school life to a series of academic assessment points, risks making learning appear irrelevant to them.
It is no wonder why many of them don't appear to care about school at all.
If teachers were trusted to teach what we know students enjoy, in a way which might not be consistent - but was exciting .. things might be very different.
Instead, the current 'scientific approach' risks producing a generation of young adults who don't believe learning new things is interesting or fun.
The ultimate test of it's effectiveness - and possibly the only one educational scientists might understand - is to examine the results this system is producing ..
- Are students leaving school now really better equipped for successful and happy lives, as a result of the experience it gives them?
- And are teachers better able to help students love learning?
The answer to these questions – in many cases - is no.
And the biggest reason why, is because we are not measuring the right things ..
2. We are Not Measuring the Right Things
The success of any 'scientific' system is dependent on identifying the desired result which you are trying to achieve – and accurately defining Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) on which success depends.
Our current system fails at the very first hurdle here.
So let’s stop the merry-go-round for a moment and consider some fundamental questions about the desired result we are trying to achieve by educating young people ..
- What is the purpose of education?
- What do parents need their children to leave school with?
- And what will give our children the best chance of success in their future lives?
I don't believe enough people responsible for building the education systems we work in, have adequately answered these questions.
Instead they seem to leap directly to 'what can we measure?' and 'how can we improve it?'.
This results in measurement for measurement's sake - and no means of judging if something is worth measuring at all.
What defines ‘success’ in their system is defined in extremely narrow terms - because otherwise comparisons would be difficult to make.
This pushes many students through an education experience which is plainly unsuitable for them.
It is inconvenient for 'Educational Scientists' to realise that many of the most desirable outcomes we need from our school system are more difficult to measure .. inconveniences like confidence, flexibility, empathy, creativity or happiness.
In the mad rush to collect and compare data - we are producing a future generation of adults who think these things matter less than more easily measurable academic skills.
But worse than that, we are teaching them to judge their own self worth by comparing their ability to others by these inappropriate measures .. rather than valuing what is within.
Is it any wonder we have a growing mental health crisis in many countries?
What we teach, and the way we teach it, really does matter.
3. Using Data in Schools has Become the Beast that Needs to Keep Feeding Itself
Data has always mattered in education - but it has never been the all consuming burden it is in many schools today.
The entire school calendar is now rigidly structured around assessment points where data is generated for the system to gorge on.
Students are tested and then tested again to produce this data, with little thought of the enjoyment they get from school.
And because we've reduced the purpose of school to such a narrow range of measurable assessment results .. no one seems able to suggest that the whole thing has gotten out of hand!
It's as if measurement by itself, infers some kind of control over our systems .. and is a required response to anyone questioning what schools do with public money.
So schools collect ever more data - to appear to be in control.
In this climate it appears 'weak' for schools to say 'we don't need to measure this' .. or 'staff time would be better spent on something else'.
Because of this data burden, expectations of teaching staff are massively unrealistic in many schools - with enormous amounts of 'non-negotiable' administration, which teachers are expected to manage in addition to their classroom jobs.
Even productive discussion about ways to improve outcomes is discouraged in many schools.
Disagreement with the 'Scientific' approach chosen on our behalf is a sign there is something wrong with us - and can threaten our jobs.
But the experience of education for the learner is being affected badly too ..
4. Education is no longer an 'adventure' - it's a grind
The production, analysis and documentation of data - has become an all consuming burden for all involved in education.
- Teachers have to fit ever more into lessons, leaving much less time for creativity (or fun!)
- Students are subjected to the pressure of ever more busy assessment cycles
- And schools have to report data to politicians and inspectors for fear of not appearing to be in control
As a result, the student experience of school is now dominated by numerous 'pressure points', when they will be assessed - and then told what the system believes they lack.
The burden our data mad system exerts on all involved, leaves little time to enrich the experience.
Any journey - no matter how wonderful - will become a grind if you lack the time to take an interesting detour, indulge a crazy idea, or enjoy the view.
But the relentless measuring involved has a more sinister side too ..
For students and staff alike - the comparisons we are told to focus on are overwhelmingly the negative ones.
Because of the amount of data which is now being generated by our system, there is always a comparison to be made which puts us under the pressure apparently required to get ‘results’ ...
.. or ‘turn around’ a student, school or teacher which has failed to meet a test of comparison.
This default setting of 'constant improvement', quite apart from making learning more effective .. ends up making the experience feel awful - for everyone involved.
However you are doing - it is never good enough.
This suits many administrators and managers in education, who simply want to churn current staff out of the door.
If your face doesn't appear to fit - you can be creatively dismissed - through repeated negative comparison and the pressure this exerts.
As a result teachers are working unsustainable hours, neglecting their own lives and families - and damaging their health in the process.
Perhaps a third of UK teachers are suffering from mental health problems - often due to the job they do .. with 61% of US teachers expressing that they 'always' or 'often' are expected to cope with extremely high stress levels.
If you are worried about the impact your job is having on your health, take my Teacher Burnout Self Assessment here.
The result of your assessment will offer a personalised report, giving you advice about how to look after your mental health.
In a system which values data over people, and results over wellbeing - teachers need to be proactive in monitoring and maintaining our own health.
But make no mistake, the real victims of this system are the students.
As a father of a 5 year old, I stand ready to protect my daughter from the overly judgemental system, which is about to teach her about the world.
I fear for children whose parents are less well informed.
Because putting young people under regular pressure and judging them repeatedly, simply creates anxiety and unhappiness.
How ironic that the information age we live in makes learning more accessible than ever before, and yet schools produce learners whose repeated experience often gives them the belief that they can't learn!
Education today could be a creative playground for teachers and their students.
There is more opportunity than ever before to bring the world to learners - and many imaginative ways for them to investigate and demonstrate their learning ..
Instead, teachers are micro-managed to deliver an overly judgemental and academic system to students, regardless of their aspiration and abilities.
Welcome to the irrelevant repetitive grind of many modern classrooms.
5. The Creativity & Flexibility of Teaching Staff is Being Lost
When I was training to teach 20 years ago, I was encouraged to find my own solutions to teaching complex topics.
When I was observed, an objective view was often taken - even when I bombed - that I was learning valuable creative skills from the process.
New teachers today, suffer under extremely rigid expectations of EXACTLY how they should teach - and the results they should achieve through doing so.
Obsessive micro-management is robbing the profession of creative people who don't want to work under these conditions - and driving those in the profession out.
Formulaic lessons, based around a ‘standard’ which every staff member has to reach, ends up robbing teachers of their personality – and leaves them tied up creatively.
The educational scientists might see the value in each lesson feeling very much the same .. but the students don't!
They want to be surprised, and have moments when they genuinely don't know what will happen next.
It's not rocket science .. and yet the 'scientists' in charge in many schools, blindly chase the holy grail of consistency like it is all that matters.
The strategy of cloning what appears to work extends between schools too.
The fact is that each school serves its own unique community - so why is it wrong to suggest that they might each need different things?
If teachers and schools were trusted by politicians, perhaps things would be different .. and parents would have a much richer choice when choosing a school for their children.
Why train teaching staff if you aren't going to trust their judgement?
6. Teachers Are Not Able to Focus on Things Students Really Care About
Our easily measurable academic curriculum largely ignores the issues which young people are most passionate about.
In the process, we are missing a huge opportunity to make education and learning relevant to their lives.
We live in a truly extraordinary time ..
An age where information and influence is easily spread worldwide - and where rampant exploitation of the planet threatens many species, including our own.
What an opportunity we have to reimagine what we teach and how we teach it - to make it relevant for the next century - rather than the last.
By appearing to ignore the biggest issues affecting young people, and not allowing them to focus on the creative things they love ..
.. they not only disengage from learning, but go forward into their lives without the skills they need to build a better future too.
In many ways it is convenient that the current system churns out unimaginative young adults, who have been trained to measure themselves against others to feel worthwhile.
What a boon to our consumer society they will be .. stuck consuming ever more crap to feel better about themselves.
What our world needs now is NOT a generation of conformists trained to fit into our current broken system.
Our survival as a species will depend on finding creative solutions to problems of human overpopulation and the climate crisis ..
We need young people who will stand up to companies operating exclusively in the interests of a narrow section of wealthy society - at the expense of everything else.
Our current education system, which defines success purely in terms of what is easily measurable, will give them little of these things.
It is extremely convenient that the education which parents are being persuaded is in the best interests of their children, is unlikely to produce young adults who will challenge the system.
That comparison is not lost on me.
7. Students Don't Benefit from Our Current Data Driven System
We have established it's not the students - or those who teach them - that benefit from the current system in many schools.
Even many educational managers are disillusioned with the madness they are expected to thrust upon the rest of us.
So who does the system benefit? .. and what is stopping us from changing what we do, to the benefit of all?
Politics and money.
Education has long been used as a political football - to be thrown about when politicians need to appear to have 'radical' new ideas ..
.. or to bash teachers for spending public money when their economic policies fail.
Listen to what politicians have said about education in the last few decades, and it is not surprising there is a perception that schools are awful and teachers are lazy.
But at least we have the power, in most countries, to vote politicians out on the basis of flawed policy, or poor performance.
There is another stakeholder with growing power, which will be much more difficult to rid ourselves of ...
I am talking about significant commercial stakeholders who have smelled opportunity in public education budgets - and in whose interests our broken system barrels onward regardless.
Profit making companies who produce curricula, tests, software, and learning content of all kinds, all benefit from the perception that there is always a 'gap to close'.
Some make tools for analysing data and making comparisons, and have in many cases, persuaded governments to mandate their use.
Some are even involved in setting the assessment criteria which countries and districts have to adhere to .. in the process conveniently creating future demand for their services.
As long as schools and districts continue to focus on teaching narrow skills based curricula, and obsess over filling unimportant 'gaps' .. companies like this will remain relevant and profitable.
Because even when those identified gaps are closed - the system simply mines more data to demonstrate new ones.
Data justifies the need for more data.
We are repeating the mistakes we have made managing our environment - with education.
And yet ... children just want to smile.
This was fascinating to read, especially from my point of view on the public school system in the US. Being a conservative, I've walked into the lion's den, but a paycheck is a paycheck in these times. We've recently pushed to measure test scores, discipline, attendance, and graduation. All in the light of improvement, trying to put a positive spin on things without focusing and brooding over the negatives, so far, it's been interesting being on the inside.
I have no stake in the district other than a paycheck, my kids are in a charter school out of state, and I don't even pay taxes in the state I work. But I agree with how data can backfire, especially with how granular we get down to the classroom and student levels.
These points have prompted me to think about how I, as a data analyst for a public school district, can help shift the data culture and make it more helpful, insightful, and actionable instead of appearing to throw faculty under the bus.