‘Teachers and learners in a time of big data’

Buchanan and McPherson’s (2019) paper on ‘Teachers and learners in a time of big data’ gives a good overview of much recent educational writing on the datafication of school teaching and learning. There are many familiar arguments here, but perhaps the paper is most useful in reminding us of the varied ways in which teachers and teaching are being data-fied.

Teachers are expected to account for themselves on a daily basis – from their inputs into the school management system, through to the recording and evidencing of their classwork, homework and any other ‘work’ activities. Much of this evidence is intended for ‘in-house’ scrutiny, although increasingly teachers are producing accounts of themselves and their work for external audiences – such as parents, future students and agencies such as the state department of education and the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.

Buchanan and McPherson raise the important question of how all this data-work  “impacts the teaching self” (p.3) – suggesting that digitally-based data is now “driving fundamental transformations of teacher professional identity that require consideration” (p.3)

In making its argument, the paper draws on a good selection of the literature on wider trends for the (over)quantification and metricisation of education. For example, authors such as Sellar, Lingard and Ozga remind us that what teachers might experience on a day-to-day basis as annoying requests for checks, ticks and confirmations are all part of wider ambitions on the part of education authorities to render teachers to be easily ‘steered’ at a distance in data-centric ways. This, then, chimes with Stephen Ball’s observation that such processes have led to a situation where teachers are now striving to make themselves “calculable rather than memorable” (Ball, 2012, p. 17).

The paper also reminds us of Lewis and Holloway’s writing on ‘Remaking the professional teacher in the image of data’ – in particular their description of “enumerative accountability” (Lewis and Holloway, 2018, p, 2), and how data generated within a school “works to shape the subjects’ teachers become” (Buchanan and McPherson2019, p.3). As Buchanan and McPherson (2019, p.3) put it:

“Consisting of both effective and affective dimensions, the subjectification of teachers through data produces a quantifiable version of the teaching self, able be viewed through patterns and trends in data”.

Buchanan and McPherson also touch on one of our own project’s leading concerns – that is, how we might ‘think otherwise’ about data in schools. In a world where teachers are compelled to simply input data into systems and occasionally engage with pre-processed outputs, how might things be different? Here, then, Buchanan and McPherson note the lack of viable alternatives being put forward to counter the current seemingly inescapable compulsion for teachers to only passively/unthinkingly engage with data:

“At present, little has been done to reconceptualise forms of reflexive agency and generate collective efforts to create alternatives for how (datafied) teachers can use data to for their own purposes or on their own terms” (p.4)


[Notes on:Rachel Buchanan & Amy McPherson (forthcoming)  Teachers and learners in a time of big data. Journal of Philosophy in Schools]