The importance of ‘number narratives’ in school use of data

School data is rarely the subject of sophisticated quantitative analysis by teachers. Very few staff are statistically proficient enough to attempt meaningful number-crunching. Instead, teachers are far more adept at using data to tell stories and construct narratives about their teaching and/or their students’ learning. Thus, unlike other areas of education that might be characterised by an insatiable desire for ‘more data’ (such as government officials or policymakers), many people working within schools could be said to value “a logic of building arguments where data is processed into words, sentences, paragraphs, arguments altogether” (Holtrop 2018, p.85).

This is apparent in our interviews with school staff. We have been told repeatedly by educators that data is used primarily in a narrative sense – as a basis for constructing stories and starting conversations ….

  • ‘Data frames it the conversations that I’m going to have. So, the data is the kind of window through which we see the human interaction rather than it being the end point’
  • ‘Data always points us to a human connection, or a human conversation’
  • ‘It’s all about starting a conversation about how you can change what you’re doing for the better in the time that you’ve got there’
  • ‘Data is just one way of conveying a message, it’s never the whole story’
  • ‘Data gives us the flexibility to tell the story’
  • ‘I guess we use data to inform the narrative’
  • ‘I think it’s useful in the sense that you can come back to families and students at some point and say “Look let’s – let’s have a bit of a look at your story so far”


This framing of school data fits neatly with Emily Brooks’ (2017) notion of ‘number narratives’ – i.e. the normative practice of thinking about school problems through the use of numerically-based stories about how a particular aspect of school works in a particular time and context.

This is a long way removed from concerns over the ‘accurate’ use of numbers. Instead, this is the use of numbers as an opening narrative frame to engage with otherwise unknown or unclear concepts such as learning, performance growth, satisfaction and so on. We need to consider how data might play a useful role in schools as a relatively non-contentious starting-point and initial broad direction from which conversations can evolve.

For example, backed up by numbers, a teacher can start a tricky conversation with a student and her parents over what she needs to do to avoid failing a course. Or perhaps a teacher can begin to make sense of why students might not be satisfied with the quality of his teaching. Whether or not the numbers offer any accurate insights Is not the point. Instead, “These number narratives are imaginaries, revealing moments where numbers become not only assertions of transparency, trust, or objectivity, but also literary and social technologies” (Brooks 2017, p.34).

From our research so far, educators seem drawn to this use of numbers in schools for various reasons (and not simply as a means of masking any statistical deficiencies). For example, numbers have an authority that can often prompt an audience to pay attention to the message being conveyed. At the same time, numbers can simplify understandings of the relations between people, practices and processes – offering an abstracted model of an educational moment that perhaps strips away more nuanced and messy issues. Indeed, numbers can make complex factors seem visible, bounded and open to manipulation

In this sense, it is important to pay attention to the presence of such number narratives in school – where and how are numbers deployed in the telling of stories about the school?  Who gets to use numbers in their story-telling, and who are their audiences?  Schools are not places where numbers are simply  left to speak for themselves. Instead, numbers are usually a prompt for lengthy conversations. As another of our interviewees concluded:

“Data is really just focusing people, getting them to have conversations and to think about things … that’s really all it’s for because in the end we spend most of our time talking to people”



Brooks, E. (2017) Number Narratives: Abundance, Scarcity, and Sustainability in a California Water World.  Science as Culture, 26(1):32-55

Holtrop, T. (2018). 6.15%: Taking Numbers at Interface Value.  Science & Technology Studies, 31(4):75-88.