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Finding joy in useful data

28 May 20150 comments
Sir Michael Barber

Sir Michael Barber

The disparate notions of ‘data’ and ‘joy’ might appear to make unusual and uncomfortable bed-mates but it is the contention of leading British educationalist Sir Michael Barber that, at least in terms of improved learning outcomes, the former is a necessary condition for that latter.

Sir Michael’s thesis is that data – properly collected, analysed and used as a basis for rational judgement and decision making – is a key factor in making sure the digital revolution is harnessed properly to provide better outcomes in learning and education.

His views were expounded this week during the inaugural Australian Learning Lecture (ALL) titled ‘Data and Joy’.

An initiative of the State Library Victoria and the Koshland Innovation Foundation, the lecture will become an annual event designed to showcase ‘big ideas’ in learning while challenging the way Australians are educated.

Opening his talk at the Melbourne Exhibition and Convention Centre, Sir Michael said that a false dichotomy had been created between the notions of data and joy.

“Joy and data seem as opposites; one is a happy celebratory thing, the other is cold and bureaucratic,” Sir Michael told an audience of leading Victorian educators.

“But we need to reclaim data as an ally in improving the human condition to inform ethical judgement because with equitable learning opportunities, data can bring joy.”

Sir Michael said it was easy to see the spread of data into every corner of our lives as a threat but that the challenge posed was to be discriminating with data and to use it judiciously.

He hit out at opposition to the gathering of school performance data and challenged the ‘rose-tinted’ view of traditional education philosophies based on a ‘Mr Chips’ view of the world that saw positive educational outcomes driven by inspirational teachers.

“The truth is that the ‘Mr Chips’ era of the 1950s was not the golden age of education. It meant misery for many who left school without qualifications, were the victims of racism or were girls – and not expected to do well,” said Sir Michael, who was UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s senior education advisor and is now Chief Education Advisor to publishing and education giant Pearson.

“For every Mr Chips there were many more teachers who underperformed or were not achieving positive outcomes for a variety of reasons.”

Sir Michael said there were four common misconceptions about data, particularly in relation to learning.

“The first myth being pedalled is that ‘the growing ubiquity of data in our lives is undermining creativity and inspiration’,” he said.

“But if you think about perfection in any creative performance, endless practice and hard work is required. Disciplined regimes based on data and feed-back create these performances.”

He said critics of data argue that inspirational leadership is more important but fail to recognise that success is usually based on that leadership being informed with accurate data.

“I’m in favour of inspirational leadership but I’m also in favour of the much maligned bean counter,” he said.

A second common myth about data was that ‘it will tell you what to do’, he said.

“I believe it is dangerous to use this as an excuse to not gather data. Data informs but it is still up to humans to exercise judgement,” Sir Michael said.

A third misconception was that ‘data replaces professional judgment’, he said.

“Since the 1970s governments had floundered through decades of misguided educational reform,” Sir Michael said.

“We have now arrived at what I call ‘informed professionalism’ which gives us the opportunity to achieve greatness in our learning systems.”

“To do this we need as good as close-to-real-time data at a class level as we can get. But, of course, any decision requires more than data or evidence; it requires judgement, analysis and ethics also,” he said.

Fourthly, Sir Michael said, there was a myth ‘that data will be abused by governments and business so it should not be collected’.

“When it comes to information, we have always put our trust in groups of people; professionals such as doctors for instance,” he said.

“Data collection comes with risks but there is an extraordinary opportunity to improve educational outcomes. Data gives you control over your own learning and that is a capacity we have barely tapped.”

He said to obviate the risks, ethics needed to keep up with the rapidly advancing data revolution.

Sir Michael outlined the principles he believes are at the heart of educational reform.

He said the purpose of schools needed to be re-thought.

“Schools are there to teach knowledge, skills and attitudes but not just to prepare people for the future. They should be productive places where every day matters.”

He said leadership on transformation and reform must come from within education systems.

Sir Michael said classrooms needed to become open and flexible with ubiquitous technology.

“Innovation will and should be built into the way the entire teaching profession works, he said.

“We need to recognise excellence and challenge mediocrity. We need to engage parents and school communities on the importance of changing outcomes,” he said.

Sir Michael said it was the job of governments to ‘steward’ education systems.

“Governments need to leave systems in better condition than they found them and they need to look ten to twenty to twenty-five-years ahead. It is their responsibility to support the quality and professionalism of teachers.

“And there is growing evidence on the importance of funding education adequately and spending wisely,” he said.

The lecture heard that OECD statistics showed that Australia was low on a list of equality in educational outcomes among developed countries and that this was particularly evident among indigenous people.

It heard that when asked in Newspoll what learning meant to them, sixty per cent of respondents said: ‘something I do every day’.

In summing up his argument for data-informed reform of education and learning systems Sir Michael said the digital revolution and the pace of technological change made it even more critical.

“In the 21st Century, any person with a great education and a passion to keep learning is faced with boundless opportunity. For anyone without an education, the world will seem threatening and unforgiving,” he said.


Helen Matovu-Reed
AMES Staff Writer