I teach on an MA course designed for practitioners. I’d asked a group to talk about a time when they were made to question what they were doing in school or why they were doing it. Such a task can generate emotionally-charged responses. On this occasion, what I heard seemed to express frustration with a defining feature of contemporary teaching: a rattling of the bars. “I hate the data. Absolutely hate the data.” The vehemence of the comment brought me up short.
The teacher explained that she was required to have a seating-plan which mapped where each student sat. On the plan, each student’s name had to be surrounded by an array of categorisations: gender, ethnicity, designations for SEND or EAL or receipt of Pupil Premium funding, prior attainment in a host of tests, indication of when the student joined the year-group, and level of so-called “ability”. “The data. They get between me and the child I’m teaching.” Others in the group endorsed the view that the information provided to them, supposedly meant to help them know and understand each of their pupils more fully and quickly, in fact worked to obscure the personhood of the pupil, usurp the teacher’s own judgement, and obstruct the process of building a relationship.
Each categorisation, seemingly neutral in itself, sets off a host of associations and expectations in whoever encounters it: expectations about behaviour, about background, about likely future performance or attainment. These colour the way the young person is seen. They shape the stance taken in school towards the person, and so can prompt a reciprocal stance or set of behaviours in the student. Expectations on both sides begin to fulfil themselves.
Not only that. Teachers must collect quantitative data for each student, turning context-bound performances into numerical summations which become a proxy for the individual, and are used to impose targets or predict future performance. Qualitative data, drawn from observation and encounter, and refined in all the ways that inform a teacher’s expert assessment of a student, are not accorded similar status. Teachers feed the hunger for data, but it’s an unbalanced diet. The technological capability now exists to collect vast sets of numbers through which cohorts of students can be compared and monitored according to a wide range of categories. Projects such as RAISEonline, Fisher Family Trust and the Data Dashboard all signal the expanding power of certain kinds of quantitative information within the re-configured state education system, and testify to its importance as an active element in central government’s policy-making and control-wielding. Quantitative data enable comparisons, and comparisons justify policy.
Quantitative data underpin predictions, and so strengthen the instrumentalist model of teaching as a process of diagnosis and remedy, the implementation of supposed “best practice”. Informing such an approach to policy is a readiness to believe that young people come in “kinds”, and that the categories by which each young person in school is designated are in fact real, rather than the convenient fictions by which we help ourselves make sense of our experience and try to create common ground. The power and reach of the technology, and the apparent self-evident nature of many of the categories (her first language is indeed not English; he is in receipt of PP funding), seem to generate a factual, objective, or even a scientific, way of conceiving of the young person.
Numbers exercise authority. The data manufacture their own consent. But even the most seemingly fixed and natural of categories can be dissolved. Think about gender. Just as importantly, think about surprise. Every time a student surprises by doing something they were deemed incapable of doing given their level of so-called “ability”, the entire system of categorising students according to notions of fixed innate ability stands exposed as constructing what it purports only to describe. The label, the category, does not scoop up the person whole and entire and pin them down as known. The label is a forgetting, as much as it is a description. It forgets that we cannot be fully known. It forgets that we are not objects wholly determined by our history, our background, our current context, our genetic inheritance, our social circumstance. Far from offering the key to constant school improvement “the data” lock teachers behind bars. Young people do not come in kinds. Each is an individual, to be met as such by the teacher, and to go on being met as such. Teaching is a matter of relationships, a human meeting in the present, not a question of diagnosis and intervention according to norms or comparisons.
The complexities of the classroom are generated by the material reality of human encounter, and these complexities are to be respected if education is to have the chance to happen. Ironically, the teachers I was talking with have a more than common respect for “data”. Engaged in a research project, they understood that quantitative data can have a place (notably in providing evidence of discrimination), and that the antipathy they felt towards what counted as data in school was not the fault of the numbers, or even of the obsession with measurement. The problem lies in the way those numbers are made to speak. narratives For no set of data ever speaks for itself. The narratives built around data spring from the values and beliefs of the narrator, the number-cruncher, the interpreter.
Neoliberal education has told a story about what young people are, and what education should be for, and what good teaching is, all of which is based on a set of principles and values the teachers in my group recoiled from. The way “data” were understood and put to use in their settings required some of these teachers to work in ways which did not merely irritate or over-burden them, but challenged them at their core. They found themselves made to act in opposition to what centrally mattered to them as teachers dedicated to doing their best for their students. They found themselves becoming teachers they did not want to be. By sharing their thinking about their experiences, they discovered not only that each was not alone in how she or he felt, but that together they had a basis from which to begin to talk about what could be done to change the situation.