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Brooks on Data-ism

February 5, 2013

“The Philosophy of Data”, David Brooks’ op ed piece today, expresses reservations about the growing trend to worship data, a trend he calls “data-ism”. In the opening paragraphs he defines this term and its limits, with my emphasis added:

If you asked me to describe the rising philosophy of the day, I’d say it is data-ism. We now have the ability to gather huge amounts of data. This ability seems to carry with it certain cultural assumptions — that everything that can be measured should be measured; that data is a transparent and reliable lens that allows us to filter out emotionalism and ideology. 

A couple of paragraphs later he writes:

I confess I enter this in a skeptical frame of mind, believing that we tend to get carried away in our desire to reduce everything to the quantifiable. 

But despite his stated misgivings that “everything that can be measured should be measured” and “we can get away in our desire to reduce everything to the quantifiable” and his assertion that “data is a transparent and reliable lens that allows us to filter out emotionalism and ideology”, he contends that data DOES prove our intuition wrong in teaching and learning:

…(M)any teachers have an intuitive sense that different students have different learning styles: some are verbal and some are visual; some are linear, some are holistic. Teachers imagine they will improve outcomes if they tailor their presentations to each student. But there’s no evidence to support this…

So… what is the evidence that doesn’t support the assertion that differentiating instruction makes no difference? I am willing to bet that it was standardized test scores! And, as readers of this blog know, I know of no evidence that standardized test scores are a “transparent and reliable lens” for drawing conclusions about teaching or learning… indeed, they are a sterling example of how we have gotten “carried away in our desire to make everything quantifiable”. And don’t try to tell me that test data has not been used for “emotionalism and ideology”….

The real problem with the massive amounts of data we collect on schools is that one can use it to draw conflicting conclusions when only one source is considered and as the volume increases it becomes more and more burdensome for teachers to use and more and more burdensome for teachers to collect.

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