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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Data: Now What?

Having a destination is preferable to just driving around aimlessly. Once you decide you want to go somewhere it helps to know where you are when you start. Knowing where you want to go and knowing your starting point are essential but they don’t tell you the best way to get there. The starting point and destination point also don’t provide the motivation to start the journey.

I can see how the current focus on data is embraced as the answer to so many problems in education because without it educators can just teach without knowing where students are and where they need to go. Data can certainly provide a sense of direction and allow progress to be monitored. Without being able to do that the “status quo” can stay permanently entrenched.

Any successful and effective approach to preventing and reducing bullying must use data to determine its starting point and to monitor progress. Data can also provide important information on frequency, duration, and location of bullying. Using the analogy of high blood pressure, we can be easy fooled about how healthy we are without relying on a more objective and accurate measure as opposed to relying on how we feel or how things look on the surface. A school with a serious bullying problem can look on the surface no differently  than a school without a serious problem. It is hard for people to trade this subjective estimation of a situation with any other interpretation of it.

Since data gives us the hope of really knowing what is happening which is highly preferable to our often inaccurate subjective estimation of it, it is understandable many people see that breaking through this data barrier is the key to meaningful change. I wish that this was true but unfortunately it is not. I have worked with schools where administrators have pinned all of their hopes for motivating staff to commit to bullying prevention on showing them the data. School leaders often think that when staff finally see the “numbers” showing the depth and the breath of the problem, they will then commit to doing whatever it takes to decrease the frequency and duration of bullying. Data alone doesn’t do this. Maybe it would if we were all Mr. Spocks and based our decisions on rational arguments. We are not and never will be.  We are human beings who respond to an array of many emotional  influences, conscious and unconscious, that motivate us or not. It is too easy for people to discount or discredit even the most objective, quantifiable data especially if there are other forces at work keeping them doing what they are used to doing.

People change people. Change is a social act. Change is not something that can be carefully managed step by step by a few people directing many. It is a human enterprise where data can be one piece of a many layered and complex process that must manifest itself differently in each situation. Bullying prevention ultimately is about changing people’s hearts and minds. Changing hearts and minds cannot be the outcome of the change process unless people’s hearts and minds are fully engaged in the process of changing them. You change hearts and minds by engaging people’s hearts and minds in the process of changing hearts and minds.

The journey of that change is a really a heroic quest driven by moral purpose. Returning to the analogy I used in an earlier post: bullying prevention can be told as the story of a PIXAR movie but in this case the audience must also be the creators of the movie. Data give us the “once upon a time” but people need to be attracted to the story and willing to become a part of it-they will need to be the ones to create the story by living it. School leaders must be master storytellers who invite people to listen and participate in creating the story that they start for them.

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