Drowning in data

27th September 2013 at 01:00

I've never been fond of data. It has always struck me as something to be endured, like global warming or middle-aged sex. Back in the good old pre-internet days, the only thing recorded in a class register was a set of children's names. But now there is so much information that you need a teacher's planner the size of a lilo to document all the facts, and the memory of a savant elephant to put them to any good use.

Data is debilitating but also addictive. Once you've popped open a new pie chart, you really can't stop. Last week I had to write up an exam so I turned to AQA's Enhanced Results Analysis, the crystal meth lab of online comparative data, to give my report an edge. It's impossible to visit the site and come away with a solitary bar chart. By the time I'd finished, I was awash with statistics. I had charts that compared my school with similar schools, to all schools nationally and to my own school in previous years. I had charts that compared boys with girls, section As with section Bs and how well we wrote about Lennie with how well we wrote about George. This extra information would be great if I had enough time to do something constructive with it, but given the pressures of teaching, I don't.

Educationalists love comparing. Nothing we do is considered to have any value unless we relate it to the performance of others, hence the proliferation of league tables, Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings and contextual value-added measures. We're at our worst on results day. Our students' GCSE grades only become meaningful when we benchmark them against everyone else's triumphs and disasters. We may once have been a nation of shopkeepers, now we're a nation of meerkats who know the comparative price of everything and the value of nothing that stands on its own.

Thankfully, some professionals are less obsessed with comparative data. Last week, my mother-in-law phoned me at 5am complaining of severe pains in her chest. By the time I got to her house she had collapsed on the sofa and could hardly breathe. When the paramedics arrived, they asked her to rank her pain on a scale of one to 10. "Ten," she gasped. Within seconds they had her on Entonox and hooked up to an ECG. Had they been educationalists, they would have first insisted on some kind of contextualising data: "How does '10' compare with how you felt yesterday, how you felt last week and how a typical 78-year-old female might feel when wedged in the slavering jaws of death?" Then they would have begun tense and lengthy negotiations about where they should set this year's pain boundary to qualify for an emergency angioplasty.

Fortunately, they just got on with saving her life. Maybe we could dump some data and start doing the same.

Beverley Briggs is a secondary school teacher from County Durham, England.

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