Why education needs to throw off the shackles of data


One of the most egregious misjudgements arising from political responses to the pandemic has been what happened to annual school examinations. A system whose only goal is the education of individual children forgot its entire purpose.

That the SNP were the first to acknowledge this mistake is hardly to their credit, but it signals something of major significance. We have to turn back an obsession with data that has plagued the education system for decades, and that always marginalises individual children and their futures.

It poisons everything from league tables to educational research. Columns in red, amber or green, and acronyms like PP, become lazy substitutes for dealing with real children.

But education is only the hi-vis victim of a much deeper, cultural malaise.

A-level and GCSE results: The devastating downside of innovation

I’ve worked in technology sales and seen first-hand how global technology business thinks and acts.

Technology has one advantage over all sorts of other products: novelty. But relentless innovation has a devastating downside: all that progress is entirely technologically determined. The flesh-and-blood individuals who are supposed to benefit from all this newness are too often ignored.

We are all forced to play constant catch-up, trapped on a running machine with buttons just out of our reach, which speeds up the moment we look like we’re making enough of a special effort to reach out and press stop.

The time has come for us all to press stop.

The first step is to recognise what’s going on. We need to grasp that the technology industry is an industry fuelled not by entrepreneurialism or capital investment, but by data. Even the machines that run the international currency market trade in data, not in international currencies. If they didn’t, they couldn’t function.

A computer that can’t collate and generate data is like a prisoner in solitary confinement: isolated and locked away from the rest of its kind, unable to function as its designer intended. No computer is an island.

Everywhere human beings try to further their knowledge this innate characteristic of technology, this data dependency, has been mistaken for human wisdom. The industry has relentlessly and effectively sold the lie that data is somehow uniquely neutral, that it resides in some special, ethereal universe all of its own, eternally untainted and pure. All that we need to do is buy the machines to generate it.

It’s no accident that the earliest consumer products of this new technology era were calculators. Mathematics is the only human endeavour that commonly satisfies our desire for truth.

Science also, understandably, embraced the technology message enthusiastically because, like mathematicians, scientists believe passionately in their ability to identify significant truths and fix them forever in the realm of fact.

It’s impossible to do justice to the way human beings have benefited from the efforts of scientists over the ages, but there is an ever-decreasing degree of public confidence in discoverable facts the moment you start to move away from conventional science into education, psychology, history, climatology or economics.

Data as neutral evidence

Yet technology commerce operates in all of these fields in exactly the same, omnipotent way, selling data as neutral evidence: as pure, inviolable fact.

I can think of no better illustration of just how false this sales pitch is than how scientists and politicians responded, faced with a pandemic. If there’s one thing the general population has learned from swallowing a daily dose of graphs and statistics these past few months, it’s to place less trust in both professions. Jointly, they could not even agree on who was most at risk, or how to record the numbers of people dying.

They still cannot agree on whether wearing a face mask is a healthy decision or a vain placebo. There may have been a shortage of PPE equipment, but no one could possibly claim they were short of data. Yet this obscene wealth of computer-generated data sowed far more doubt and confusion than confidence and unity.

Damned statistics

This is because it’s never the data that matters; it is the stories we tell with it. Stories we tell, for example, about children’s exam results. This is all we need to know to press that stop button and climb off the treadmill.

Instead of imagining data as something neutral – something with independent force and authority – we need to understand that there is no such thing and never has been. We need to think of data in much the same way we think of language. It’s just another medium people use to communicate their own thoughts and ideas to us.

Data does not invest any argument with greater force, merely because it is data. It does not flow untainted from some translucent spring on Mount Helicon: it’s dirtied by the hands of all those who requested it.

Instead, we need to challenge the quality of the story being told: to ask ourselves who is telling it and why. A rational demand for better statistical analysis will only ever get us so far. Something much more radical and profound is needed: a complete repositioning of statistics and data as inherently subordinate to the story being told.

Most significantly, politicians – and their closest advisers – need to inform themselves much better about how the technology industry really works. They need to look under the bonnet and ask some challenging questions about their relationship with an industry that they naively worship as both saviour and driver of the economy.

If they even knew where the bonnet catch was, they might start to see just how skilful the industry is at generating not just data but smoke and mirrors.

For more than 20 years, I’ve watched technology companies demonstrating products that don’t exist yet, or selling something based on nothing more substantial than some seductive slides and transformational promises, to rooms full of people whose knowledge about the industry is so weak that they simply don’t know what questions to ask. Often, this audience includes senior politicians. Then they act surprised when projects like Track and Trace fail to deliver.

It’s time we all stopped looking through this tinted glass screen, darkly.

Joe Nutt is the author of several books about the poetry of Donne, Milton and Shakespeare, and a collection of essays, The Point of Poetry. His new book, Teaching English for the Real World, was published in May by John Catt 

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