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‘Education’s obsession with numbers masks true success’

Education projects often flounder amid the demand for statistical measures of success, says this teacher

'Education’s obsession with numbers masks true success’

Education projects often flounder amid the demand for statistical measures of success, says this teacher

I think we could all agree that the quality of learning is much more valuable than the quantity of learning. Yet I fear that quantity has long been given – and continues to be given – greater weight than quality in education.

Numbers can be used to show the driving force behind success, but they can also become the driving force themselves. In my last few months as a teacher in Scotland before I moved to Sweden earlier this year, for example, it became clear that for well-meaning, driven and passionate organisations and people to get anything done that mattered, they needed a particular set of numbers.

In other words, even if you aren’t in it for the profit, you still often rely on the most valuable numbers of all: money.

Often, to do anything creative, we rely on someone else, or something else to provide us with money or funding, opportunity or targets, and then we have to meet those them to gain access to resources. The problem with this is that it’s never your own measure of success: you have to compromise on your objectives to meet third-party objectives, you have to consistently prove that you are worthy enough.

And even if you are confident in your organisation’s worth, you’re still bending to fit into something that doesn’t suit you. That’s not sharing or caring – it’s controlling. Personally, I didn’t put up with wearing a dress and hat combo I didn’t want to when I was three years old, and I don’t fancy being forced to look a certain way as an adult either.

The problem with commodifying humanity is that it doesn’t leave much left that doesn’t rely on money. Even if something’s ostensibly for the social wellbeing of a society, if it’s made competitive, someone’s gotta lose.

Don’t you think it’s slightly patronising to be told you have to meet these objectives to qualify for access to resources and opportunity? It’s like the bully in the playground with a big bag of sweets, and the only way you can get some is if you suck up and conform to their wishes. It’s fundamentally wrong. Centralised aims are not what matters to a child who, say, just wants to dance to forget about their unstable family life. Ticking boxes on a funding application does not matter to the kid wanting to go on a school trip up a mountain because they've never been out of the city before.

So why does our system rely on an approach of “tell me what you want to achieve, then prove it to me it in numbers and concise facts”?

The balance between the people who know best and the people with the power and the purse-strings so often tips towards the latter, but do we stop and question this enough? I’ve seen and heard of many great projects and opportunities where a set of numbers deemed important trumped the quality of their actual impact on people – and such projects are therefore dismissed as unsustainable, however good they are in practice.

Mari-Claire Kay is a Scottish PE teacher who works in Sweden and tweets @MariClaireBK. This is an adapted version of a piece originally published on her blog.

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