‘Big data’ was supposed to fix education. It didn’t. It’s time for ‘small data’

Pasi Sahlberg and Jonathan Hasak in the Washington Post: “One thing that distinguishes schools in the United States from schools around the world is how data walls, which typically reflect standardized test results, decorate hallways and teacher lounges. Green, yellow, and red colors indicate levels of performance of students and classrooms. For serious reformers, this is the type of transparency that reveals more data about schools and is seen as part of the solution to how to conduct effective school improvement. These data sets, however, often don’t spark insight about teaching and learning in classrooms; they are based on analytics and statistics, not on emotions and relationships that drive learning in schools. They also report outputs and outcomes, not the impacts of learning on the lives and minds of learners….

If you are a leader of any modern education system, you probably care a lot about collecting, analyzing, storing, and communicating massive amounts of information about your schools, teachers, and students based on these data sets. This information is “big data,” a term that first appeared around 2000, which refers to data sets that are so large and complex that processing them by conventional data processing applications isn’t possible. Two decades ago, the type of data education management systems processed were input factors of education system, such as student enrollments, teacher characteristics, or education expenditures handled by education department’s statistical officer. Today, however, big data covers a range of indicators about teaching and learning processes, and increasingly reports on student achievement trends over time.

With the outpouring of data, international organizations continue to build regional and global data banks. Whether it’s the United Nations, the World Bank, the European Commission, or the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, today’s international reformers are collecting and handling more data about human development than before. Beyond government agencies, there are global education and consulting enterprises like Pearson and McKinsey that see business opportunities in big data markets.

Among the best known today is the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures reading, mathematical, and scientific literacy of 15-year-olds around the world. OECD now also administers an Education GPS, or a global positioning system, that aims to tell policymakers where their education systems place in a global grid and how to move to desired destinations. OECD has clearly become a world leader in the big data movement in education.

Despite all this new information and benefits that come with it, there are clear handicaps in how big data has been used in education reforms. In fact, pundits and policymakers often forget that Big data, at best, only reveals correlations between variables in education, not causality. As any introduction to statistics course will tell you, correlation does not imply causation….
We believe that it is becoming evident that big data alone won’t be able to fix education systems. Decision-makers need to gain a better understanding of what good teaching is and how it leads to better learning in schools. This is where information about details, relationships and narratives in schools become important. These are what Martin Lindstrom calls “small data”: small clues that uncover huge trends. In education, these small clues are often hidden in the invisible fabric of schools. Understanding this fabric must become a priority for improving education.

To be sure, there is not one right way to gather small data in education. Perhaps the most important next step is to realize the limitations of current big data-driven policies and practices. Too strong reliance on externally collected data may be misleading in policy-making. This is an example of what small data look like in practice:

  • It reduces census-based national student assessments to the necessary minimum and transfer saved resources to enhance the quality of formative assessments in schools and teacher education on other alternative assessment methods. Evidence shows that formative and other school-based assessments are much more likely to improve quality of education than conventional standardized tests.
  • It strengthens collective autonomy of schools by giving teachers more independence from bureaucracy and investing in teamwork in schools. This would enhance social capital that is proved to be critical aspects of building trust within education and enhancing student learning.
  • It empowers students by involving them in assessing and reflecting their own learning and then incorporating that information into collective human judgment about teaching and learning (supported by national big data). Because there are different ways students can be smart in schools, no one way of measuring student achievement will reveal success. Students’ voices about their own growth may be those tiny clues that can uncover important trends of improving learning.

Edwards Deming once said that “without data you are another person with an opinion.” But Deming couldn’t have imagined the size and speed of data systems we have today….(More)”