No time for ‘interesting’ analyses?

A recurring theme throughout our investigations so far is the limited ambitions that most people in schools seem to have for their use of data. This is not a pejorative observation. In contrast, this perhaps constitutes a far more realistic and healthier attitude than is found in some of the hype surrounding data and education. Nevertheless, the fact that most school teachers, managers and students are relatively fixed in what they want to do with data is an emerging finding that deserves reflecting on.

We have noted in previous posts how schools do not appear to be particularly motivated to respond to (or even look for) novel insights and unexpected patterns and correlations in their data. In short, school data is not a place for surprises, counterintuition and ‘outside-the-box’ thinking. On one hand, this analytic conservativeness flies in the face of how computerised data analysis is supposed to be. As David Beer (2019, 102), puts it, large-scale digital data analysis is supposed to result in ‘interesting’ insights:

“Interestingness appears to be attached most directly to those patterns that suggest anomalies, break with norms or have properties that suggest they are revealing something usable”.

As Beer reasons, “a constant driving curiosity” is placed at the heart of how digital data is imagined. Nevertheless, this ambition is clearly compromised when enacted in school systems that are not particularly ‘curious’ by nature or design. Instead, every school is an ordered, procedural and routinised entity that operates within systems that have very fixed notions of cause and effect. Put crudely, the three leading foci of schools’ data imperatives tend to follow the logic of students’ ‘attendance’ leading to them ‘learning’ which in turn leads to ‘grades’.

In this sense, there is little institutional incentive to ask questions of how ‘school’ works or how ‘learning’ actually takes place. In fact, these sorts of questions might well serve merely to distract schools from the time-pressured task of getting students successfully through the system. Again, put crudely, this boils down to the task of getting students to graduate on time with the best grades possible.

As such, it is understandable that most school staff approach the ‘promises’ of datafied schooling with a pinch of salt. Schools do not want data to be a ‘game changer’. Instead, school staff are interested primarily in using data to help them continue acting in broadly the same ways that they are accustomed. As we have seen in our three research schools, there is certainly an appetite for using data to tweak and refine processes, as well as managerial ambitions to make the core business of school more ‘efficient’. In contrast, there is little spare capacity for curiosity, or using data to reinvent radically what schools do.